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Did You Know That In Your Pocket Or Within 5 Feet Of You Lie Minerals From The DRC?

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Back in 2010 Stephen Kelly looked at how many of us contribute to bloody violence in this piece that featured in Focus85

Hiding behind a crumbling wall of her family home, Fatuma crouches low so as not to be seen by the group of strangers moving past the banana tree she had been playing under only 30 minutes ago. In that time, much has changed in her life. There had been a lot of gunfire in the last few minutes, a sound people in the area have frequently heard since the late 1990’s when a brutal war began in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The last Fatuma saw of her mother was when she was dragged off crying in the middle of the night by men in military fatigues last year. Rape is endemic in Eastern DRC and is used to instil fear in communities in the mineral-rich areas.

Fatuma’s father was not at home at the time. He was mining coltan in an open-cast mine operated by one of the militia groups in North Kivu and would be away from home for weeks on end. Being more aware of what would happen to their mother if the men took her, Fatuma’s older brother pleaded with the soldiers to stop. He was shot in the head. She fears the same thing has happened to her father who now lies motionless, face down and by the door of the house.

With no family left and at 8 years old, Fatuma has a very uncertain, lonely and dangerous path ahead of her.

Almost 6 million people have died of war related causes since 1997 in the Congo. 80 per cent of the world’s coltan (short for columbite tantalite) reserves are in the DRC, where militias fight for control of coltan mines. The militias then sell the minerals to middle-men who transport them out of the country – often illegally (mostly to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, although other states have also been implicated) where they are shipped to refineries worldwide. From these refineries, the finished product is sold to large electronics companies which are household brands within Europe and North America.

drc economy

Coltan is refined to make tantalum which is used in mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras. A United Nations group of experts report in 2009 confirmed the widespread presence of armed groups in Eastern DRC using illicit mineral trade in coltan, cassiterite (refined into tin), wolframite and gold to fund their violent activities.

In your pocket or within 5 feet of you lie minerals from the DRC. It would be naïve to think that the minerals used in these electronic devices come from legitimate sources and not from a mine where violence, intimidation and gross human rights violations are perpetrated on a daily basis against the most vulnerable.

It is irresponsible, short-sighted and harmful to the Congolese for leading mobile phone companies in Ireland to promise customers a new mobile phone every 6 months. It also indirectly garnishes the militias controlling the mines with weapons to continue their reign of terror. A UN report confirms that the world’s fifth largest tin-processing company, Thailand Smelting and Refining Co (Thaisarco), buys ore from an exporter who is supplied by mines controlled by the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is one of the main militia groups terrorizing local communities in Eastern DRC. Thaisarco is owned by British metals giant Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC) Group. Many other companies are named in the UN Group of Experts Report 2009.

The answer is not that companies should wash their hands of these issues and avoid purchasing minerals from the DRC. What is needed is for multinationals to take responsibility for their actions and commit to creating transparent supply chains for the benefit of all.

According to Jean-Louis Bondoko, of Equitable Action, an Irish organization campaigning to raise awareness about the plight of those in the DRC affected by the conflict mineral trade, “It is imperative that the multinationals and politicians named in reports are investigated fully for their involvement in this deadly industry as well as taking responsibility for their actions.”

Following the primary thread from the effects to the cause is not easy, but a number of urgent measures are required to stop fuelling this dangerous and uncontrollable inferno. Firstly, regional governments should engage actively with militias – a lack of political and democratic space in some neighbouring states (especially Rwanda) is crippling negotiations that would ensure rebels can return home. Politics, and not simply a military solution, can help contribute to ending violence.

Secondly, as highlighted by Sophia Pickles of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, “security sector reform must be prioritized across Congolese institutions – including the army, police, judiciary and border controls”. Broadly speaking the national army (FARDC) needs to be better controlled, coordinated and managed. The FARDC have perpetrated some of the worst atrocities against local populations and often people fear the FARDC as much as the militias.

Thirdly, Western multinationals can no longer weed out every last pound of flesh from developing countries. Companies need to start paying fair prices for products coming from the developing world and ensuring these are transferred right down the supply chain to those at the bottom who spend long days toiling in dangerous, unregulated mines for $2 USD per day. Formal channels with regulatory legislation focussing on a visible and transparent trade system must be developed with fairer prices providing the incentives to follow and sustain the new process.

The practical implementation of a transparent supply chain will be difficult given the lack of infrastructure, remote locations of the mines and general insecurity. Proper certification requires honest, impartial and unbiased personnel to establish and operate such a system. The longer multinational companies and their subsidiaries continue to feed money through to these militias via obscure and illegitimate channels, the more regional insecurities will deteriorate. As advocated by UK Parliamentarian, Chris Mullen MP, mining companies need to fully disclose payments to the Congolese government to stifle the rampant corruption that has blighted the country causing untold suffering to the Congolese people for so long. It is imperative that multinational companies trading in minerals from eastern DRC ensure that minerals they buy neither finance armed groups or military units, nor contribute to human rights abuses at any point along the supply chain.

So what can you do? Our government needs to put pressure on companies who knowingly sell such electronic products with minerals that haven’t been validated through a transparent supply chain to avoid benefiting the warring parties in eastern DRC. There are already campaigns in progress to raise awareness about this issue both in Ireland and worldwide (see list below).

If the status quo continues, more children like Fatuma will experience the living hell that is part of Eastern Congo today. We cannot continue contributing to this tragedy by purchasing electronics goods blindly without demanding that the goods we buy are manufactured with materials sourced from reputable mines. We must use our power as consumers to advocate for change. What is needed is a transparent system that develops stronger governance and economic institutions, in turn reducing exploitation by illegal armed groups and promoting local and regional development. We all have a part to play in changing the lives of those suffering in the Congo. Don’t wait… tomorrow may be too late for Fatuma.


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