Congo's conflict minerals

With its abundance of mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo could be one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. But as is often the case on this continent, valuable natural resources are more of a curse than a blessing.

Whilst much has been done to raise awareness of so-called 'conflict diamonds' from Sierra Leone, little light is shined on the background of other minerals which are much more fundamental to most of our lives.

What are conflict minerals?

'Conflict minerals' are minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses – most notably in the eastern D.R. Congo.

Which ones are in Congo?

If you own a mobile phone, or an mp3 player then it’s likely that you’ve got a little piece of the Congo in your pocket right now.

  • Coltan / Tantalum. Coltan is short for Columbite-tantalite – a black tar-like mineral found in major quantities in the Congo. The Congo possesses 80 percent of the world’s coltan, but only mines a fraction of it. When coltan is refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. It's a vital component in a vast array of small electronic devices, especially in mobile phones, laptop computers, pagers, and other electronic devices.
  • Gold is the biggest source of conflict mineral trade in Congo and is most responsible for the ongoing bloody conflicts. Gold has soared in price on the commodity markets in recent years, and Congo is literally sitting on a gold-mine worth tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. Despite promises by President Kabila to clean up the mining industry, corruption remains rife and thousands of small-scale unofficial mines scatter the country.
  • Tin / Cassiterite. Cassiterite is a tin oxide which is mined extensively in Congo. The refined tin is used in most household electronic items as it's used as the solder for circuit boards.
  • Tungsten is a dense metal used in everything from light bulbs to TVs. Formula One cars to bullets. It's also used in mobile phones.
A Congolese man pans for gold. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly courtesy

Who mines them?

It’s no coincidence that the mineral mines are situated in the areas home to the bloodiest violence and conflict. The mines are controlled by the government troops (FARDC) or the rebels they’re fighting (principally the FDLR), though both deny any involvement. The mines and the communities around them are controlled with an iron fist and conditions for the men and children who serve as the miners and porters are extremely tough.

Most miners only barely earn enough to survive. Many don’t even manage that. Few if any of the mines are large-scale industrial ones owned by international companies. They are hand-built artesan mines, with the only tools available being shovels and a lot of hard labour.

What happens to the minerals?

Virtually none of them are exported by Congo itself. Thousands of tonnes of the raw minerals are smuggled across the border into Uganda and Rwanda where they are exported to the far east and smeltered with minerals from all over the world - making it very hard to trace the origin of the metals and alloys produced.

Who profits?

Not the miners. Or the porters. The mineral trade is a valuable source of income for government soldiers and rebels alike – they often don’t receive any salary. But it’s only the people right at the top of the hierarchy – the war lords and army commanders - that are really making any money though. And that money is usually used to buy more weapons and ammunition to maintain their control of the territory and population. And so the cycle of violence continues.

What is the effect on the country and the people?

Though the price on the world commodity markets of its vast gold, coltan and cassiterite has reached record highs in recent years, Congo’s economy and its population haven’t benefited in the slightest. One of the richest countries on the planet in terms of natural resources, Congo remains one of the very poorest by most economic measurements.