Important progress in controlling the mining of tin, tantalum and tungsten in the troubled eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo has been achieved, says a report from the Enough Project, a Washington nonprofit group focused on Africa. Yet renewed fighting that began in the spring between regional militias and Congolese national troops, who are backed up by the United Nations’ second-largest peacekeeping mission, could unravel the early mining successes. Moreover, the smuggling that has been able to continue enriches Rwandan traders, who in turn support the rebels, a new UN report contends.
The Enough Project report, “From Congress to Congo,” describes steps by the Congolese government, mining industry and others to slow mineral smuggling that finances arms for rebels intent on seizing control of land and wreaking mayhem. Improvements in tracing the minerals, called 3T, to conflict-free mines have created somewhat better conditions for laborers and their communities, primarily in North and South Kivu Provinces.
The minerals are used worldwide by the electronics industry to make laptops, cellphones and digital cameras and music players. Tantalum comes from the mineral coltan, a part used in capacitors, which manage electric flow in circuit boards.
But the newly emerged M23 rebel group, dictated by Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congo army general who led a mutiny this spring and is fed supplies by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments (who both deny roles), threatens the still-fragile state of affairs in eastern Congo. Ntaganda has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes since 2006. In June, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, named five M23 leaders as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world.” The region is notorious for savage rapes of women and girls.
Fighting has hit a lull between M23 and the army, possibly reflecting international pressure, including pronouncements by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and aid withdrawal, for Rwanda to stop its involvement. Though mineral buyers continue to require traceability, and M23 is not active in the trade so far, it could find a role through the 40 or so other militias in the area like the Mai Mai.
The 3T conflict-free mining steps have caused a 65 percent drop in profits in the last two years for militias because of lowered volume; prices for the minerals are a quarter to a third of 2010 rates.
Although gold smuggling, much more lucrative, appears to be filling the void, attracting interest not only from M23 but also Rwandans and other Central African countries, Enough and others say.
The report credits the tracing improvements to various sources, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 to regulate Wall Street and tighten corporate accountability and directly link to activities in Congo. Pressure on the Congolese government by the UN and the International Criminal Court to arrest Ntaganda has helped deflate the might of such longstanding rebels as the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). Yet loopholes to exploit mineral smuggling remain open.
The Dodd-Frank law has compelled electronics companies to create procedures for decriminalizing the mineral trade in Congo and elsewhere in mineral-rich Central Africa. Intel and Nokia and other large businesses, for example, are now buying “clean” minerals from Congo, the report says.
In addition, regulations adopted in August by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission to conform to Dodd-Frank provisions on conflict minerals in Congo require that over the next four years, companies that file annual reports with the commission disclose details about their supply chains. That does not ensure that companies will comply, given the wide room for interpretation of the rule’s language (like the definition of “manufacture”) and the extent of independent monitoring done by nongovernmental groups and others.
Nevertheless, the Congolese government now requires that all mineral exports be audited and traced to conflict-free mines, in line with due-diligence standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One such enforcement – not pertaining to gold – occurred in May, when two Chinese companies, TTT Mining and Huaying Trading, were suspended from exporting in Congo. A UN group of experts in the region had uncovered evidence of the companies’ role in smuggled minerals.
The Enough report uses material gathered by a three-person team that interviewed ex-combatants, mining company representatives, civil society leaders, government officials and miners in eastern Congo and Rwanda. The investigation occurred from February to July 2012, during the formation of the M23, said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy adviser for Enough and team member.
The mining reforms have also led to tighter security at the pits through a certification scheme set up – though not fully carried out – by the regional government group called the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which was partly developed by the UN’s Department of Political Affairs after the Rwandan massacre in 1994.
By early 2012, newly trained civilian police were installed at mines, as opposed to militias running the show, though the Mai Mai may be trickling back. The first-ever validation of mines for the presence of armed groups and child labor (children make up half the work force) has also hindered smuggling and instilled a sense of safety in some parts of the region for the first time in years.
Will it last? Corruption ripples at high levels: the Congolese army itself is accused of smuggling, a UN report found. More mining police and UN peacekeepers to train civilian police are needed; the ratio of police officers to workers at the mines is 14 for every 4,000 workers, Enough says.
Another notable sign of improvement is the industry’s “bagging and tagging” system under way at mines in Katanga Province in southeast Congo and in Rwanda.
The tin and tantalum industries bag, say, 50 kilograms of minerals and put numbered tags on them to source them like a FedEx package, but the tin industry controls the information, making it difficult for outside scrutiny to be done, Lezhnev said in an e-mail to PassBlue. Smugglers seem to be taking control of many tags, he added, undermining the system.
Four trading centers have been built in North and South Kivu Provinces in partnership with the UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco (Francophone for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo), to strengthen traceability, though none has opened.
Gold smuggling could become the newest lifeline for militias. Production is rising because of worldwide demand, with the trade from the Kivus estimated at about $300 million a year. Ntaganda of M23 dominated gold smuggling last year but not this year, Lezhnev said. Gold is exported in such high-tech ways as hidden in briefcases, ending up in the United States, Europe and Asia.
One model gold mine may be the Twangiza open-pit project, which began operating in September by the Banro Corporation, a Canadian company. The company has set up the Banro Foundation, based in South Kivu, to foster community development, said Martin Jones, the foundation chairman, who works from Toronto.
At the end of this year, Jones said, 10 new schools will be finished and four health-care centers and infrastructure projects (like potable water) are to be completed. A women’s health unit, financed by the foundation and others, just opened at the General Referral Panzi Hospital, which treats victims of sexual violence.
What’s it like doing business in Congo? “It’s very challenging,” Jones said. “Congo has a reputation for violence, but this is a huge country, the size of the US east of the Mississippi River,” and the conflict, he added, occurs in more secluded areas.
Meanwhile, the Great Lakes group went to the UN this summer to ask for help financing a “neutral international force” of about 4,000 troops (excluding Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda soldiers) to end M23′s grip and other “negative forces” in eastern Congo. A plan approved by the Security Council has not surfaced as it awaits details from the regional group. The group, led by Uganda, met in early October, but no actions on the international force have been taken. A joint verification mechanism investigating allegations of border incursions and observed by Monusco has yet to be carried out.
Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president, made no direct comment on M23 in his speech at the General Assembly debate last month, referring only to the “profound evil” hounding his country.
As Gert Rosenthal, Guatemala’s ambassador to the UN and president of the Security Council this month, said to the press, the “situation is not good.”
[This article was updated Nov. 17, 2012]