- - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — In the remote Congolese countryside, a war that technically ended eight years ago still rages. Villages are looted, women are raped en masse, and children are forced to fight.

At the same time, the region is one of the poorest in the world — and one of the richest. It is estimated that $24 trillion worth of minerals lies underneath Congolese soil, while 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Those minerals did not start the war, but they pay for the weapons and perpetuate the conflict.

As they fight for control of Congolese mineral wealth, local militias terrorize villagers and force them to work in mines, then buy weapons with the profits. The United States is trying to stop the trade in so-called “conflict minerals” but is creating unintended consequences instead.

Activists say a new U.S. law could slow the sale of conflict minerals to American companies, Congos biggest buyers, but the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has delayed the adoption of regulations to enforce the measures.

Congolese miners say the law, nevertheless, has resulted in a de facto embargo on the minerals, compounding suffering in the region.

“It just means they don’t want to buy materials from this region,” said John Kanyoni, the head of the mineral exporters association in mineral-rich North Kivu.

Mr. Kanyoni said that since the law went into force April 1, hundreds of thousands of Congolese people who work in mines have lost their jobs. He said the regulations ultimately could slow the sale of conflict minerals, but Congolese mining companies need six months to comply with requirements to certify minerals as “conflict free.”

“It is like American companies are really putting us on an embargo straight away,” he added. “It’s a big problem.”

Fidel Bafilemba, a Congo-based researcher for the Washington advocacy group Enough, said delaying enforcement of the law is unnecessary and only prolongs the conflict. In the United States lobbying Congress, he said the people who work in mines controlled by militias are victims of slavery.

Mining towns in Eastern Congo are usually so poor that they are almost devoid of hospitals, roads or schools, he said. Underpaid and overworked, some miners are forced to walk more than 40 miles with minerals piled on their backs, Mr. Bafilemba said.

“How can you say this is a job for people when they are working in dehumanizing conditions?” he said last week in Rwanda before he left for Washington. “Most of the children are being used in these mines instead of attending schools. It’s the total destruction of these places.”

Like laws adopted in the early 2000s intended to halt the sale of “blood diamonds” from Africa, Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act requires U.S. companies to report the origins of certain minerals they purchase.

Tantalum, tungsten, gold and tin are used in a vast range of products, including laptop computers, light bulbs, cellphones and airplane engines. The region is also flush with gold, copper and diamonds.

According to the law, manufacturers that purchase these minerals from Congo or neighboring countries have to prove that the minerals did not come from or support armed groups in order to be labeled “conflict free.”

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