Congo's Mineral Blessings Are Also Its Curses

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It’s not just the rebel groups that inflict terror on the Congolese children and people, especially the women, who are victims of mass brutal rapes.

[Global: Africa]

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the third largest country in Africa, and according to African Business magazine its total mineral wealth is estimated to be $29 trillion – equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the United States combined.

Yet its mineral blessings are also its curses.

One of the main minerals sought by investors is coltan. It is used to manufacture cell phones, video games, computers and electronic products. But its mining in the DRC has helped fuel a bloody civil war that led to labor exploitation, child trafficking, abductions, child soldier recruitment, low enrollment in schools and arbitrary arrests.

Refined coltan is a highly resistant metal powder called tantalum and its vitaly important to modern life. It’s one of the world’s most sought after material in the high tech industry. It sells for over $200 a pound and the price is rising. It’s the magic dust that that empowers mobile phones made by Nokia and Ericsson and computer chips from Intel to Sony stereos and DVDs.

“There is a direct link between human rights abuses and the exploitation of resources in areas in the DRC occupied by Rwanda and Uganda,” said Suliman Baldo, a senior researcher in the African division at Human Rights watch, a New York based non-governmental organization. The correlation between the bloodshed and coltan has similar consequences that effected the diamond industry in the late 1990s, when demand for the gem fueled civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia. The international community eventually imposed tougher import and export regulations.

But the market for coltan is based on secretive and convoluted trade and it has limited international regulations--it is not sold on regulated metal exchanges. Selling of coltan is not illegal and its value is as much as $6 billion a year. Australia, Canada and Brazil have legitimate mining operations.

The demand for tantalum took off with the boom of high-tech products, deviating into a sinister marketing strategy in the DRC, through rebel groups, funded and supplied by Rwanda and Uganda, both of which exploit coltan mining. “It is truly one of mankind’s greatest atrocities,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when she spoke about sexual violence in the Congo during her visit there is August 2009. “This country has seen humanity at its worst.”

It’s not just the rebel groups that inflict terror on the Congolese children and people, especially the women, who are victims of mass brutal rapes. The Congolese army (FRDC) suffers from lack of discipline and are not paid regularly, which promotes acts of banditry against the civilian population.

Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada, said the conflict-mineral trade needs its version of the Kimberley Process, the sweeping guidelines introduced by the United Nations to help stamp out the trade of so-called blood diamonds. “I think it's going to require a tremendous amount of initiative that is going to have to ultimately come from consumer momentum, and from the industry itself,” Nutt said. “It's not enough to say that in the areas where there are mines, they are building schools and providing health care. It might make people feel better to know that, but it’s not changing the abuses that are happening.”

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