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Is the news about Congo's conflict minerals good?

- June 18, 2014

Soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rest near the town of Kibumba at its border with Rwanda after fighting broke out in the Eastern Congo town June 11, 2014. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)
On June 10, the Enough Project published a report claiming that 67 percent of tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3T) mines in eastern Congo are now free of armed actors and declaring the minerals mined there ‘conflict-free’ (compared with a 2010 U.N. Group of Experts report asserting that ‘almost every mineral deposit’ in the area was controlled by military groups). The document came close on the heels of a June 2 deadline for U.S. firms to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the provenance of minerals used in their products and to certify that they do not contain ‘conflict minerals’ from the Democratic Republic of Congo or its neighbors. The BBC responded to the Enough Project’s report, calling it ‘rare good news’ from the DRC and lauding it as proof that consumer-led lobbying efforts in wealthy countries can have real effects on under-developed countries.
However, the situation is not as rosy as such reactions may suggest. First, describing the mines as ‘conflict-free’ suggests that the absence of armed groups and Congolese military from mines means that miners no longer work under duress and are not forced to pay illegal ‘taxes’ at the mine site that can in turn fuel militia activity. Yet the absence of armed individuals does not mean that miners are not working under forced or inhumane conditions, that they are not being extorted, or that non-state actors and individuals holding political office are not benefiting illegally from mining in the region. Indeed, a variety of actors are involved in Congo’s mineral industry, including politicians, Congolese and foreign entrepreneurs and investors, Congolese mining companies, and multinational firms, and eliminating extortion by armed groups and the military will not necessarily affect illegal profits to others, who may subsequently fund armed activity. While the route may be more circuitous, the result is the same.
Indeed, the report concedes that some armed actors have simply resorted to using proxies to extort money from miners, often friends or family members. The absence of armed groups and Congolese military in the mines themselves thus does not mean that they have disappeared entirely from the mineral trade or that minerals are not indirectly financing armed activity. In addition, extortion does not just occur in mines, but also along roads, at checkpoints, with negotiants, and at comptoirs in nearby towns and provincial capitals where minerals are bought, sold and smuggled. Extortion may thus continue to occur at other points along the supply chain, and indeed, the report notes that armed actors are still present along many key transport routes.
Third, the report remains vague on who does control the mines in the absence of armed actors. In a couple of instances, it notes that mines previously controlled by warlords or military actors are now subject to ownership negotiations between the government, large multinational companies, and community groups. Such negotiations do not, however, mean that equitable solutions are being found. Indeed, the line between politics, military and civil society in DRC is so blurred as to be virtually non-existent in some cases. While some mines may have previously been controlled by armed actors ‘on the ground,’ it was often with the strong backing and protection of political actors in Kinshasa or provincial capitals who will be keen to participate in ownership discussions. Equally, community groups are often unrepresentative or co-opted by military or political actors, and the assumption that their participation in negotiations will ensure that miners’ interests are taken into account may not hold. Finally, large multinational mining companies have in many instances benefited from or fallen victim to corruption, a lack of transparency, and instability in Congo, and as long as the country’s mining code remains under revision, it is unlikely that transparency and fairness will prevail.
Perhaps most importantly, the use of the term ‘conflict-free’ is problematic. It is used largely to describe the electronics and other products manufactured by Western companies and consumed by Western populations. This, however, leaves out the Congolese themselves, many of whose lives remain marked by personal and material insecurity. While the report correctly stresses that much remains to be done, that instability still plagues much of the region, and that there is an acute need for broader security sector reform, the discourse that implies that mines without military actors and minerals from those mines are ‘conflict-free’ minimizes the many ways in which a variety of actors sustain conflict in Congo and suggests that what matters most in the search for peace in Congo is minerals.
However, minerals alone have never been the main source of conflict in the DRC; instead, conflict is at its root linked to poor or absent governance both nationally and regionally. This relatively narrow conception of conflict is likely more of a problem with the Dodd-Frank legislation that generated the SEC reporting requirement than with the Enough Project’s findings. Still, while it is surely good that a significant number of 3T mines in eastern Congo are no longer directly controlled by armed actors and that corporate responsibility about mineral sourcing is on the rise, overall levels of violence in Eastern Congo have not diminished significantly since the passage of Dodd-Frank. Removing armed actors from mines is important, but doing so will not solve problems that are, at their base, political.
Sarah von Billerbeck is a Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where she works on post-conflict peacebuilding, U.N. peacekeeping, and DR Congo. She previously worked for the United Nations in eastern Congo.