Friday, November 13, 2009

Tracing the 3 Ts from Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has known few periods of peace and stability since becoming independent on June 30, 1960. The brutal Belgian colonial rule of Congo led to a bloody separation, causing many foreigners to flee and a United Nations peacekeeping force to be installed. In 1964, rebels declared a “People’s Republic” in what is now Kisangani. Belgian military forces quelled the rebellion within three months. The next few decades saw a repressive, corrupt regime in power under the late Mobutu Sese Seko. Thirty years after the Kisangani revolt, refugees from Rwanda’s genocide brought on two rounds of an internationalized civil war and ethnic violence that persists in eastern Congo today.

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda operate in eastern Congo, as does the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma and Banyamulengue militia. Numerous militia groups operate in and around Ituri, and Mai-Mai rebels are operating in northern Katanga . Many of these groups control mines from which the 3 Ts – tin, tungsten and tantalum – are mined. These minerals, along with gold, are the key ingredients of the electronic equipment our society has become dependent on: cell phones, personal computers, iPods, MP3 players, etc. Armed groups in Congo earned an estimated US$180 million from the mineral trade last year. So as we use our 21st century arsenal of communications and entertainment equipment, our purchases are enabling these rebels and militia to continue their murders, rapes and robberies.

The Enough campaign announced earlier this year a 3Ts campaign to highlight the deadly impact of this trade. Enough’s John Prendergast and Sasha Lezhnev of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group travelled to Congo recently and examined the supply chain for these minerals to determine what has made it so difficult to shut down the profiteering of these minerals by armed groups in Congo.

They found that of the 13 major mines in eastern Congo, 12 are controlled by armed groups. Other mines are operated by the Congolese army, which is a violation of the country’s mining laws. In rebel mines, workers are forced to labor, including children, and many workers are abused. While the other mines may not be as brutal toward their labor force, they also adhere to no health or safety standards and pay as little as US$1 a day to their workers.

Once mined, the 3 Ts minerals to go Bukavu and Goma, while gold goes mostly to Butembo and Uvira. The 3Ts must be transported by truck or plane, and you think it would be easier to control their flow, but Prendergast and Lezhnev found that the majority of transporters (often rebel groups) and trading houses operate outside the law. Even though they found that it is relatively easy to determine the source of minerals based on different coloration and texture based on the source mine, there is insufficient regulation to make this work.

Export companies are required to register with the government, but their method of determining the source of minerals they buy is to merely ask the seller whether their goods are from conflict mines. There is no system of confirming what the seller says.

The Congolese government told Prendergast and Lezhnev that the country legally exported only 270 pounds of gold, but gold production was estimated to be 11,000 pounds of gold. Rebels, therefore, reaped the lion’s share of profit from the gold trade.

Exported minerals go to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. In Uganda and Burundi, buying houses are unregulated, and in Rwanda, Congolese minerals are mixed with minerals from Rwandan mines. Buying houses, Prendergast and Lezhnev found, rarely ask questions about where the minerals come from. Moreover, in Uganda and Burundi, the army and police provide security for the minerals, taking a cut of the profits.
The mineral refining is done mostly in East Asian countries such as China, but also include Germany, the United States, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Dubai. At metal processing companies, Congolese minerals are smelted or chemically processed with metals from other countries. At this point, it is impossible to determine whether or how much of the finished product comes from Congo.

Electronics companies claim they buy the end product and can’t be expected to prove it is not the product of materials from conflict regions. However, the International Tin Research Institute, an association of major tin smelters, has initiated a process to improve due diligence on the sourcing of illegal tin from Congo. Why then can’t other companies at least try to ensure that they aren’t participating in a chain of production that is fueling war and abuse of people in Congo?

Until we consumers make a fuss, these companies won’t think this is important enough to make that effort. Civil society organizations such as Enough are to be commended for their efforts in this regard, but it is up to consumers to keep in mind the suffering Congolese people when we make that next cell phone call, boot up our personal computer or download music onto our MP3 player. We have to call or write the producers of our electronic equipment and insist they do a better job of guaranteeing that the materials in our machines don’t contribute to war in Congo.

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