Congo’s mineral wealth lures exploiters

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo holds a treasure trove of valuable minerals that are at once the country’s greatest blessing and most enduring curse.

Second only to South Africa in mineral wealth, Congo has attracted rapacious exploiters from 19th-century Belgian colonialists to foreign-backed rebel groups.

Minerals help fuel vicious fighting in eastern Congo that has killed more than five million people in the past decade — the bloodiest conflict since World War II.

In an effort to stem the fighting, nongovernmental organizations and Africa activists are campaigning for legislation against the sale of “conflict minerals,” modeling their efforts on those against the illegal diamond trade that funded civil war in the West African country of Sierra Leone in the past decade.

At the Belgian Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, about a thousand mineral varieties from Congo are represented, classified according to composition, color and radiance.

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In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold seized the vast territory — which if superimposed on a map of the United States, would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River — as a personal fiefdom and private jewel box.

More recently, Congo’s small but powerful eastern neighbor, Rwanda, has become entangled in the mineral grab. Rwandan Hutus who fled their homeland in 1994 after committing genocide against Rwandan Tutsis have morphed into the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which finances itself by plundering Congo’s minerals.

Congo’s mineral resources are most plentiful in a north-south belt stretching from Katanga province in the southeast to Equateur and Orientale in the north and in North and South Kivu provinces in the east.

Minerals are extracted in part by forced labor. Trading houses based in the Kivus move the minerals through Rwanda and Burundi and on to Western or Asian buyers.

The mining takes place amid civilian bloodshed, pillage, rape and other cruelties.

Congo’s national army has become a partner in perfidy and cooperates in the illicit trade, according to John Prendergast, an Africa specialist and a co-founder of the Enough Project at the Center of American Progress, a Washington think tank.

Mr. Prendergast is focusing on minerals in high demand by the modern electronics industry. They include tin, tantalum and tungsten, which are used in cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.

The trade, he says, is worth more than $100 million annually. Congo also has gold mines that yield additional millions, he says.

Following the model of the “blood diamonds” campaign for Sierra Leone, Mr. Prendergast is encouraging Congress to take action on “conflict minerals” as a way to stem the bloodshed.

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