- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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.

To read more Congo stories, click here.

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.

A Senate bill — the Congo Conflict Minerals Act — was introduced last spring by Sens. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican; Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat; and Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat. It calls on the U.S. government to support multilateral efforts to investigate, monitor and stop activities involving natural resources that contribute to illegal armed groups and human rights violations in eastern Congo.

The bill also would require the State Department to closely monitor the financing of armed groups in mineral-rich areas of eastern Congo.

Under the legislation, U.S.-registered companies selling products using columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, wolframite or derivatives of these minerals would be required to disclose annually to the Securities and Exchange Commission the country of origin of those minerals.

When the country is the Congo or neighboring states, the company would need to disclose the mine of origin.

Tin, produced from cassiterite, is used to solder circuit boards in cell phones and laptops. Tantalum, derived from coltan, is used to manufacture the batteries in cell phones, videogame consoles and laptops. Tungsten, from wolframite, creates vibrations in cell phones.

The money that goes to the militias “enables the purchase of additional weapons used to kill, loot and rape across eastern Congo,” Mr. Prendergast told The Washington Times.

Global Witness, an investigative nongovernmental organization based in London, supports Mr. Prendergast’s views.

In July, the organization, which focuses on the links between natural-resource exploitation and conflict, issued an 87-page report that traced the activities of militias, the Congolese army, supply chains, the roles of Rwanda and Burundi, and traders in the eastern Congolese cities of Goma and Bukavu.

The report called on the Kinshasa government to assert itself more aggressively in curbing the flow of the illegal minerals.

“The conflict in eastern Congo, the deadliest since World War II, is being fueled by this trade in minerals by armed groups who control many mines, force individual miners to pay ‘taxes’ on the minerals they mine, and destroy communities through sexual violence. More than five million people have died as a result of the war, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in eastern Congo over the past decade,” Global Witness said.

Congo’s ambassador to the U.N., Atoki Christian Ileka, said he supports the Global Witness initiative.

“People who are buying those natural resources must be more thoughtful about the origin of these minerals or diamonds,” he told The Times. “If they know they come from [Congo], they must be careful not to exploit them.”

Mr. Aleka said that if all such exports were properly sourced and monitored, corporations would not buy “blood minerals,” and there would be no reason for militias to go to war to acquire them.

The upheaval in the Kivus contrasts with mining operations in the southern province of Katanga, which is equally rich in minerals, but thus far beyond the range of the storm. The main reason is that the mining there is industrial, requiring sophisticated extractive machinery rather than the picks and shovels and human labor used in the Kivus.

Katanga is largely the preserve of U.S. companies such as mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., a Phoenix-based firm.

Another reason for the contrast is that Katanga doesn’t have Rwanda as a neighbor.

The repeated forays of Rwandans into Congo, ostensibly in search of Rwandans fleeing the 1994 genocide, have also turned Rwanda into a major mineral exporter in spite of the fact that it is not particularly endowed with mineral wealth.

China has also entered the mining picture, offering the Kinshasa government $6 billion in exchange for wide-ranging mining rights.

Increased sensitivity to criticism on the part of companies and traders may provide a long-awaited opportunity for more effective action to break the links between the mineral trade and armed conflict in the Kivus, Global Witness reported.

However, momentum will need to be sustained to ensure that the issue does not fall off the agenda in a rush to find short-term solutions to the crisis, the organization said.

“There is no chance for peace unless we can figure out a way to not buy electronics and jewelry that sustain rebels who practice violence,” Mr. Prendergast said. “It must be a campaign to only buy rape-free cell phones or conflict-free gold.”

Betsy Pisik and Cassie Fleming contributed to this report.

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