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Do Everyday Goods Fuel War?

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Wars in developing countries may seem remote from us in Ireland. In Focus76 Derek O’Halloran wrote that the link may be as close as the humble can of beans.

From expensive luxuries like diamonds, to mundane necessities like tin cans and mobile phone components, many of the goods we use in our daily lives come from conflict regions. Because of a lack of accountability and traceability, our collective demands for these consumer goods can indirectly fuel wars.

For example, the trade in casserite – a mineral from which tin is derived – has fanned the flames of conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and amply illustrates the connection between first world consumption and developing world conflict.

In early 2004, new environmental regulations were introduced in Japan and the EU, requiring electronics manufacturers to replace lead with tin for the material used as solder on circuit boards. The consequent demand for tin on international metals markets saw prices triple to a high of $9,600 per tonne. In the east of the DRC, far from the trading houses of Europe and Japan, conflict escalated as several armed groups vied for control of the vast deposits of lucrative ore in the region. Throughout two long wars in the DRC which resulted in up to four million deaths and, finally, an uneasy transition towards peace, resource plunder paid for the weapons used in the struggle to control the country’s mineral rich regions.

At the moment, there are signs of hope for the DRC. The country’s first free elections in 45 years were held at the end of July, and human rights groups in the east of the country confirm that the situation there is calm but tense. However, sporadic fighting has continued during the spring and the integration of the various militias into the national armed forces is moving slowly.

Katana Bukuru of SOFAD, a human rights group based in the troubled South Kivu region of eastern DRC, is still uncertain about the future. “We can’t say the election will resolve the problems because all around this area militias are armed. So if they’re not happy with the election results they can start to fight again. But we have to believe because we can’t continue in this way.” All sides in the conflict are reluctant to give up power and the access it brings to mineral wealth, so it remains to be seen if the militias will respect the election results. The transitional Government has signed up to the Kimberley Process, which regulates the trade in diamonds from regions of conflict, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is trying to establish a similar framework to ensure accountability in the mining and mineral sector.

But not everyone is convinced of the legitimacy of the electoral process or that the mineral wealth will be used to develop the country. “The elections are like a showcase, behind it is a masquerade to legitimise looters and their foreign supporters,” said Valentin Mubake, president of the UPDS national committee, the main democratic opposition party. His party has boycotted the presidential election and he complains that lucrative mining concessions are being sold off to US, Canadian and European interests.

So while the first tentative steps toward a democratic transition seem possible in the DRC, the long process of making the country’s vast wealth work to its citizens advantage may still be a good way off. And that is something to think about the next time you open a can of beans.

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