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.”
Isaac Mumbere of the Congo-based Center of Research on Environment, Democracy and Human Rights said the mining industry perpetuates the conflict by providing funds for weapons and giving local militias a reason to continue fighting.
In the late-1990s, civil war and genocide spilled out of neighboring Rwanda after Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus in a 100-day purge in 1994. When the current Rwandan government swept into power, ending the genocide, about 2 million Hutus fled to Congo, then called Zaire.
Unprecedented amounts of foreign aid flooded into Congo, fortifying rapidly growing Hutu militant groups. In response to the threat of the growing militias, other armed groups sprang up across the region. The fighting eventually drew in six neighboring countries, killed more than 5 million people and forced millions of others from their homes.
Officially over in 2003, the war was called world’s deadliest since World War II. Although the fighting slowed again after a power-sharing agreement in 2008, locals said the conflict never ended. A study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health said women are raped in Congo at the rate of nearly one a minute, often by militias using rape as a weapon of war.
In some villages, Mr. Mumbere said, commanders of militias or armed groups take over private mines for one or two days a week and force workers, including children, to labor without pay. The proceeds then go to the same militias terrorizing the population.
“The authorities or the commander will take you and beat you badly if you refuse [to work],” Mr. Mumbere said in his Goma office. “They will say you are lucky because you did not lose your job.”
He also said illegal “taxes” on the roads are just as much a part of the conflict mineral trade as militia-controlled mines. Armed groups, including bands of soldiers from the Congolese army, regularly stop mineral convoys and demand cash for passage.
Mr. Bafilemba, of the group Enough, said that stopping this practice will require more than enforcing U.S. laws. With low pay and corruption in the upper ranks, foot soldiers in Eastern Congo often make as little as $17 a month, he said, and rely on these “taxes” to survive.
While illegal taxes and militia-controlled mines fuel the conflict, they also deny the government and the people any benefit from the nation’s natural resources, he added.
“We still have villages being burnt down, women being raped and men being killed that way,” he said. “That’s why legislation implementation is crucial. It’s vital not only for the people but for the whole economy.”
In a report released Wednesday, the international human rights group Global Witness called for the Congolese government to exert more control over the mineral-rich region.
“The Congolese government has yet to tackle the impunity of those illegally involved in the minerals trade,” the group says.
Global Witness also urged mining companies to comply with international standards to combat the trade in conflict minerals.