Black Affairs, Africa and Development
“Legitimizing” Congo’s conflict minerals means thousands are losing their livelihoods.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Serge Patrick, father of three, used to own a refrigerator. He was proud of it; the appliance was a sign of prestige in his neighborhood. But when he lost his job as a miner and there was no food left to chill, Patrick sold the fridge, along with other domestic necessities, to fill stomachs as empty as his house.
“I used to have more,” Patrick said, gesturing to the bare walls of his home. “I had a radio and good chairs. A table. I sold them because we were going hungry.”
He paused. “One of my children starved to death.”
Patrick led me down his neighborhood in the crowded Birere Quarter in Goma, covering his nostrils to mask the stench of canals choked with garbage. It was a warm day, and a group of bystanders stood in the shade of mud-thatched houses to take refuge from the heat. Mostly unemployed miners like Patrick, they sauntered over to put in their two cents when they saw me wielding a camera. Soon enough, the small group swelled to a crowd of roughly 25 men.
“Tell her the Obama Law is making us Africans suffer very much,” one miner said to Patrick.
“No, man! You should say Obama has to go away,” interrupted another.
“Stop smiling. They will not believe you are suffering,” said one more.
The “Obama Law” the miners referred to is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Section 1502 requires companies listed in the U.S. Stock Exchange to disclose their supply chains for products containing minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo and its adjacent countries. The regulation was born out of a growing concern over revenue raised from conflict minerals — that is, raw mineral ore sourced from armed groups, particularly in Congo.
Under the law, American corporations are compelled to report their supply chains to the Securities and Exchange Commission. It does not expressly prohibit companies from using conflict minerals. Nonetheless, a handful of corporations such as Intel, Apple and Motorola launched campaigns to eliminate them from their products.
While some companies pledged to stop using raw mineral ore sourced from Congolese armed groups, even more international buyers responded to the law by sourcing their minerals elsewhere and going “Congo-free,” rather than harm their reputations by being associated with rampaging warlords.
Months after the law’s enforcement, sales of tin ore from the DRC’s North Kivu province plummeted by more than 90%. In 2009, Congo produced more than 12,000 tons of tin ore, accounting for 4% of the world total. The number dropped to 2,900 tons in 2011.
The Dodd-Frank Act came on the heels of DRC President Joseph Kabila’s six-month mining ban in 2010, an attempt to end the bloodbath caused by armed rebel groups to seize control over minerals. The ban plunged thousands of miners into joblessness; many insist the Dodd-Frank Act further drove investors away from the region. But the policy’s nuances are lost on many miners, who often still misinterpret its provisions as a direct ban on minerals from Congo.
Electronics companies funded roughly 15 years of civil wars in Congo by supporting the black market for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. Collectively referred to as “3Ts and gold,” the $2 billion conflict mineral market kept guns loaded, boots polished and private armies fed for warlords, prolonging decades of terror within the country.
For instance, General Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed “The Terminator” for an unchecked five-year period of murder and mass rape conducted by his rebel group, supported a taste for fine wines and lavish homes with taxes collected from mines in North and South Kivu. A 2011 United Nations report claimed Ntaganda was making $15,000 per week at just one border crossing alone. (The country’s average per capita income is $680, with a 71.3% poverty rate.)
The power struggle between various armed groups in the DRC has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. More than 5 million people were killed and another 2 million were displaced. Congolese soldiers systematically raped tens of thousands of women in an unprecedented display of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Many of the victims were children.
The Dodd-Frank law was created with the intent to prevent even more wars by stemming the source of their funding, but the policy shift came with unplanned collateral damage: The livelihoods of thousands of Congolese miners.
“Black markets have innocent beneficiaries,” said Toby Whitney, former legislative director of Rep. Jim McDermott, who worked on the law’s conflict minerals provision. “When you break a black market, some of the innocent beneficiaries of the black market will no longer be able to benefit from it. The Central African mineral black market has been one of the largest black markets in the world for decades. It was fueling the war to burn hotter than it would have, otherwise.”
Whitney added, “This is about the math of lives. You can choose to keep the black market going, but at the cost of violence done unto other people a hundred miles away.”
“Westerners are the people who handle all the politics,” Pascal Tshikaya Kamina told me as we sat in his backyard while he separated grains of coltan from cassiterite with a magnet. Coltan, he claims, used to fetch $120 a kilogram. Now, it sells for a paltry $20. Cassiterite went for $15 a kilo, but has since dropped to $5.
“The Obama Law did not help us at all,” Kamina said. “There are other places in Africa that also suffer from conflict, but they never put a ban on their minerals.”
The middle-aged Kamina became a miner at 14. With his earnings, he built a home and started a family, but now can barely make ends meet as the past few years bore witness to the rapid devaluation of his labor.
“Before the law, life was good,” said Kamina. “Today, a life of digging minerals is a life of hardship.”
Kamina recalled his life before the Dodd-Frank Act: regular meals and warm clothing, essential in the mountain climate. Bread, cheese and wild honey for supper; tall bottles of pale beer and roasted meat on special occasions. The good days, he said, are simply a memory.
Like many miners, Kamina cannot think of another way to make a living, save for joining a rebel group out in the bush. Armed insurgents in the region who no longer control mines allegedly make money by robbing banks and collecting illegal taxes and tolls.
He blames the law for an increasing number of crimes in eastern Congo.
“Many people in Congo are in prison because of the low prices of minerals,” he said. “Hunger can make a bandit out of anyone.”
The DRC’s fabled soil is said to contain every natural mineral listed on the periodic table. Pits streaked with gray coltan are a stone’s throw away from the piles of mud that conceal tourmaline, a semi-precious gemstone that comes in an array of colors: pink, green, red, blue, and a specimen called “watermelon” for its resemblance to the summery fruit.
Diggers eke out a living through artisanal mining, small-scale operations performed with crude hand tools and very little machinery. To be able to dig from a site, miners must pay multiple fees, including registration taxes. They make their money by selling to comptoirs — traders who buy and sell minerals wholesale — in the DRC.
The payoff is relatively high: Diggers can make anywhere from $10 to $50 per week depending on their luck, while the average Congolese worker makes do with $10 a month.
But the lack of infrastructure surrounding the sector led to dehumanizing working conditions for decades. Prior to the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act, an estimated 2 million people worked as artisanal miners in the DRC, 40% of whom were child laborers. Miners often face the threat of landslides, falling boulders and asphyxiation — not to mention exploitation from unscrupulous government agents who extort money from workers.
In June, the Enough Project reported that 67% of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines in eastern Congo provinces are allegedly no longer under military control as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act. Previously, armed groups sold 3T minerals to electronic companies and smelters without question. But after 2011, with no takers among western companies, they turned to Chinese companies to unload minerals at a steep discount of up to 60%.
“A kilo has become $1.5, and there’s no market,” an armed group commander told the Enough Project. “How many kilos would you then need to feed all of these men?”
As of February 2014, more than half the mines in Rubaya, which was once controlled by a rebel group that oversaw years of mass murder and rape, are certifiably conflict-free.
While Rubaya is just one of the mining towns upheld as a success story of the Dodd-Frank Act, it is still not immune from occasional clashes between the Congolese army and rebel groups. During my visit, a scuffle broke out in the town plaza. No one knew what was happening, but shortly after, a group of men carried out a body covered with a sheet.
Little fuss was made.
“We are still harassed in the mining sites,” said Mukagegyo Sekanabo, a 61-year-old négociant who buys and washes raw mineral ore from diggers before bringing it to warehouses.
But she seemed less concerned with the militia than with the lack of honest buyers in her village, which dwindled to a single comptoir over the years.
“We are suffering by the fact that only one person is holding the power to buy,” she said. “And that person is cheating us.”
Chinese mining companies have long been under fire for committing human rights abuses against Congolese miners, particularly in failing to uphold safety standards. Comptoir owners, many of whom are immigrants from mainland China, were reluctant to answer questions.
I visited several comptoirs in Goma to speak with the proprietors in an attempt to understand how the Dodd-Frank Act affected their businesses. As an Asian woman, entering the warehouses was simple enough: On multiple occasions, Congolese workers frequently let me in without asking their Chinese employers.
“You must be one of their neighbors!” a security guard beamed at me before opening the gates.
The comptoir owners, upon discovering I was not there to conduct business and was from the Philippines instead of China, invariably escorted me out the door.
The six-hour drive from Goma to Numbi, a mining village perched on a mountain in South Kivu, is treacherous at best. Motorists have to frequently get out of their cars to assess the pockmarked roads the way a captain would scan the open sea; a fearless driver is as important as a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Even then, a road full of potholes cannot disguise Congo’s natural resources: a checkerboard of cassava and peanut plants battling for space on the mountain slopes, fields dotted with cows milked to produce wheels of salty Goma cheese. But money from agriculture is — quite literally — peanuts. The real wealth of Congo lies in the battleship-gray fragments of rock lodged in the ground.
In Numbi, the system that supposedly legitimizes the Dodd-Frank Act is crude at best. To get a conflict-free certification, proprietors merely have to label sacks of minerals with handwritten notes identifying their origin. Under the new system, bags of raw material are tagged and certified as conflict-free before being sent to smelters (industrial plants that process mineral ore into metal) in different countries.
Even then, the process of turning raw ore into components for electronic chips is murky, as companies are mostly reliant on information coming from mines and smelters. The journey from a mine in Congo to a gadget in the United States is a long one that can take more than a year, with multiple road blocks that can throw the real origin of the minerals into question.
“I can’t tell you that this exact chip has had this exact stuff from this mine,” said Carolyn Duran, supply chain director of Intel Corporation and project manager of its conflict-free minerals program. “That’s just simply not the way it works. But we can say that chip is sourced from these smelters, and these smelters have components from the DRC, and that we checked that sourcing.”
“Honestly, we cannot be 100% sure [they’re conflict-free],” Duran said.
“DRC-free does not equal conflict-free,” Duran said. “Despite all our efforts, we’re one piece of a big puzzle.”
Francois Salongo Sala, chief of the Numbi Mining Sector, thinks the Dodd-Frank Act is one of the best things to happen to Congo.
“The population works freely and safely,” he said. “Our minerals here in Numbi can no longer be called blood minerals, because we do not have armed groups.”
It is Sala’s duty to see the Dodd-Frank Act enforced in his town; a printed sign at his office door reminds miners to declare the value of collected minerals. If they fail to, the message warns, “officers will come after you.”
Before allowing a visit to the mines, Sala ushered me to his office, where seven assistants solemnly examined my accreditations, scrutinizing the signatures in the dim light. He opened a ledger and drew out a handful of documents, brandishing each one proudly as he spoke: a government letter forbidding armed groups and child labor at the mines, a register of miner statistics, and trade records.
Despite his repeated assurances that there was no illegal activity at the mines, Sala sent an assistant to follow me around the next day.
“Children are not allowed here,” the assistant said. “The parents will be fined if they bring them.”
But on the way to a coltan pit, we found a stray child’s boot lodged in a puddle of mud. My translator later told me he overheard the staffer warning miners to keep their children away from the site during our visit.
Academic researchers and activists from Europe and the U.S. recently criticized reports of Congo’s demilitarization, saying the numbers were misleading. Christoph Vogel, a researcher from the University of Zurich who specializes in Congolese armed groups, challenged the Enough Project’s claims that 67% of mines are now demilitarized.
“There had never been a point when all the mines in Congo were controlled by armed actors,” said Vogel. “Even if you go back 10 to 15 years in history, when the big wars were raging in the region, mining was never under exclusive armed control.”
Vogel further argued in an open letter that the anti-conflict minerals campaign was causing even more harm to Congo’s economy.
“The movement risks descending into green-washing of the worst kind,” he said. “As multinationals improve their public image, in the Congo — the country on which this image is founded — no solutions are found, but they create new problems.”
Congolese miners like Serge Patrick — father of three, former proud owner of a refrigerator, and the unwitting beneficiary of a black market that funded the death of millions — are not in a position to understand why the reserves of minerals that fed, clothed and sheltered their families for years can no longer put bread on the table.
Despite well-meaning intervention from legislators, corporations and nonprofit groups around the world, little has been done for Congolese miners in the policy tug-of-war. With no real livelihood programs to guide the drifting miners, a few, like Kamina, are contemplating a lawless life in the bush. Others have taken up subsistence farming, or motorcycle taxi driving.
Many simply live on increasingly less every day.
Patrick slapped the empty trough beside him in frustration. Like much of the equipment in the courtyard he shared with other miners, it was covered with dry soil and rusty nails. It had clearly been unused for a while.
“What can I do for my children if I do not have a job?” he said. “We have a lot of wealth in our country. Why can’t our people enjoy its wealth?”