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How has coltan exploitation affected the people of Eastern Congo?

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Coltan is a combination of columbium-tantaline and as of 2000 was one of the most important strategic minerals found in the Congo. Coltan is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of capacitors, the electronic components that control the flow of current inside circuit boards. Tantalum is particularly sought after because it is a metallic element that is a particularly good conductor of electricity and is highly resistant to heat. Capacitors made of tantalum (coltan) are found inside almost all laptops, pagers, iphones and mobile phones. 80% of global coltan reserves are located in Africa with most of these reserves found in the Congo (Vesperini, 2001).

The War

War has afflicted the Eastern Congo since 1993, and the Congo (DRC) as a whole since 1996. The war of liberation broke out in August 1998 when Rwandan and Ugandan backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) launched a campaign to replace Laurent-Desire Kabila as president of Zaire (Congo). The RCD aimed to suppress insurgency movements operating in the Congo, defend the Congolese Tutsi population and to overthrow Laurent Kabila. However this war reached a stalemate and an effective partition of the Congolese territory occurred. To the east, rebels controlled the important rich mineral reserves while to the west Kabila still held control. The overall result of the conflict was to maintain Eastern Congo and a region known as ‘the Kivus’ as a violent buffer zone. This was beneficial for Rwanda as it was able to gain internal security while Rwandan forces profited enormously from the mineral wealth within the war economy in the Kivus. Over four years the war in the Congo has claimed more lives ‘than have died in all of the other wars in the world combined over this period’ (IRC,2001:19). Analysts argue that the basic cause for the conflict in the Congo in 1998 rests with the deterioration of authority of the Zairian state in eastern parts of the country as a result of corruption and mismanagement of the regime of Mobutu. Mobutu became a by-word for an indiosyncratic corruption and ingrained economic resilience known as ‘debrouillez-vous’ (fend for yourself). Around the borders of eastern Zaire (Congo) trading networks generated profits for the wealthy and well-connected (MacGaffey, 2000). Mobutu’s regime left a political and security vacuum which was filled by rebel movements, this destabilisation of the DRC was aggravated by factors including arms proliferation and the instrumental exploitation of ethnicity which resulted in ethnic alliances being formed at both country and regional level. An influx of Rwandan refugees in 1994-1995 further exacerbated the tension in the region threatening the social, ethnic and political balance while providing a fertile breeding ground for radical groups (Moyroud C. 2002). In situations where the authority of the state has broken down (such as experienced in the Congo during Mobutu’s reign) informal and illegal high-profit economic activities including drug trafficking, illegal mineral exploitation and arms sales increase. Over time those involved in these illicit economic activities lose their moral base completely and no longer support peace initiatives but rather take on supporting conflict and on occasions can promote destabilisation of regional dimensions which will increase profit. In a situation such as this the development of a ‘war economy’ occurs and this was particularly evident in the Congo from the late 1990’s.

Coltan Exploitation

Eastern Congo and in particular the Kivu region have been neglected by corporate mining, however the mineral resources are so immense and easily accessible that they generate without significant investment (in infrastructure or labour training) considerable amounts of wealth, measurable in billions of US dollars (Moyroud, 2002). Kivu coltan is of high quality and easily accessible, while not requiring specialised instruments for its extraction. The extraction and exploitation of natural resources in the Congo is not a new phenomenon, but a recurrent feature of Congolese history. As Mobutu’s regime began to fail, social services in the Kivus ceased entirely, the population were forced to provide their own services with some support from international NGO’s. In eastern Congo, businesses no longer exchanged with the rest of the Congo but rather Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania became their transit locations for their exports. During the outbreak of the war of liberation in 1998 this resource extraction and exploitation of coltan in particular became intimately linked with extractive violence (Moyroud,2002). Rebel administration have become more interested in the exploitation of natural resources in the Kivus than providing local services for the population. Eastern Congolese communities have suffered from the lack of development or investment in infrastructure for mining or social services which has been further compounded by government instability, corruption and ethnic conflict.

The environment of the Congo has been altered greatly as a result of coltan extraction. In eastern Congo, coltan deposits are found in farms, forests, savannahs, and in private and government lands. The uncontrolled influx of thousands of people into lands for coltan mining has caused many changes to the environment. Wildlife is threatened while forests have had their tree’s felled for firewood. High population densities within the protected reserves increase the chances of human disease transmission and wildlife can be killed through poaching or by firearms. Among many problems brought to natural reserves in Eastern Congo is the debarking of indigenous trees for mineral separation. Soil erosion also occurs due to land excavation and mining while earth trenches are made to capture water and separate minerals causing the degradation of water catchments. David Sheppard, IUCN’s Head of Programme on Protected areas says, ‘mining, together with the presence of so many people looking for food, is severely impacting on the ecology of protected sites, as in violation of world heritage principles. It is feared that a large proportion of the elephant population in Kahuzi-Biega national park has been killed as well as a significant number of gorillas’ (Moyroud, 2002).

By 2002 an estimated 15,000 people were exploiting coltan and other minerals on 48 sites throughout the Kahuzi-Biega national park in eastern Congo. After a dramatic drop in coltan price in late 2001 many people have settled in the park and started to farm, hunt and mine resulting in ‘ecocide’.Coltan is not the only problem affecting the Congolese but is an important conflict sustaining factor. It has exacerbated the conflict by generating income for rebels and their supporters. It has also generated new dimensions in the already existing inter-community conflicts and it has accelerated environmental degradation.

The distribution of coltan revenue highlights the severe problems associated with conflict minerals. Income from coltan and where it is used is dictated by the goals and strategies of various actors in the coltan cycle. At extraction level Congolese brokers have used the money to improve their standard of living by building new houses or by creating new businesses. However the majority of brokers are in collaboration with the Rwandan Army and it is the RCD officials who are getting most of the profit generated by coltan. The 35,000 Rwandan soldiers in the Congo in 2001 were all well paid and equipped while the sick and wounded were well cared for. The uneven distribution of coltan profit has caused great damage to the relationship between Congolese people and their neighbours including Rwanda and Uganda in particular (Moyroud, 2002).

Coltans influence on conflict

The exploitation of coltan has renewed old conflicts between different ethnic groups in Kivu. In the ‘Masisi’ zone there have been fierce confrontations between Congolese Rwandans and other Congolese communities over land ownership and citizenship. Violent battles also occur between the Congolese government and its allies on one side, and, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Congolse rebels on the other.

The Congo has become the epitome of an ‘economy of war’ with coltan at its heart. An economy of war began to develop in Congo to fill the political and security vacuum which was allowed to develop under the regime of Mobutu. The result of this was an economy dominated by primary resource extraction involving the extraction and export of minerals including gold, diamonds and coltan. These activities were controlled by military and militia actors backed by regional powers and multinationals. With control of these primary resources military actors in eastern Congo were able to sustain and finance their armies using the profits accrued through mineral extraction and export (Jackson, 2003). With a lack of central state control and the complex dynamics of the Congolese war, local communities were often abused and used by militias. It was common for forced or prisoner labour to be used in mining coltan and other minerals in lands under military control. The 20 million strong population of Eastern Congo is afflicted by a complete lack of government, absence of law and ever-changing rules which are imposed by invading armies from Rwanda and Uganda, and roving bands of well-armed predators. A UN Security Council report has highlighted that coltan is perpetuating Congo’s civil war. The expert panel said the war ‘has become mainly about access, control and trade of minerals’. The report said that the war ‘has created a ‘win-win’ situation for all belligerents. Adversaries and enemies are at times partners in business, get weapons from the same dealers, and use the same intermediaries. Business has superseded security concerns’ (Harden 2001). The economically motivated militia activity results in looting and intra-militia fighting over resources.

As a result of coltan extraction and exploitation, many Congolese families have been forced out of their homes and are now living in camps or in towns. The war which has been exacerbated by coltan extraction has resulted in great increases in sexual violence (Human Rights Watch, 2002). The war and resource exploitation has heightened anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi sentiment among the local Congolese who feel their lands are being pillaged by outsiders.

There has been great environmental and structural damage caused by ‘coltan fever’. Agricultural production has diminished because of insecure access to fields and due to altering land use to facilitate mineral exploitation. The coltan fuelled conflict has caused a complete abandonment of social services causing infrastructural decline resulting in blocked access to towns and markets; major road routes have been destroyed or badly degraded (Jackson, 2003).

In order to understand how coltan has impacted and changed the lives of Congolese people I will briefly outline an article by Blaine Harden published in the New York Times in 2001. The article follows the life of Mama Doudou a native Congolese woman whose life has been sculpted by coltan exploitation in Eastern Congo. Mama Doudou took advantage of a dramatic rise in coltan price in early 2001; she sold bread for highly inflated prices and was elected president of the camp prostitutes. Mama Doudou had abandoned her position as a traditional chief and joined the thousands of people illegally mining and working in Ituri forest. Mama Doudou negotiated the terms of endearment among three hundred miners and thirty-seven prostitutes. The normal arrangement in the camp was for a miner to give Mama Doudou a kilo of coltan (the currency of the mine) and he could then pair off with a prostitute. The ‘temporary wife’ would cook his food, haul his water and share his bed, in return he would give her enough coltan to live a comfortable life in the forest. As a result of this type of sex trade in the forest there was an explosion in sexual disease which resulted in a rise in demand for antibiotics which cost ‘a tin of coltan’ which at the time was valued at around 27$. Mama Doudou had taken advantage of the squalid encounter between the global high-tech economy and one of the world’s most ruined countries. Another man interviewed in the article illustrates how local militias profited from coltan extraction. Bangazuna a local Congolese man mined in a territory controlled by Ugandan military and rebel allies, he explains how Ugandan soldiers extorted him, ‘In the morning, when you get up, the Ugandans hand you a pack of cigarettes and they give you two bottles of beer. In the evening, when you finish digging, you have to pay them back with coltan, it was very expensive – if you refuse to pay or if you don’t have coltan, they beat you and threaten to shoot you’ (Harden, 2001).


All studies and articles that I have examined have concluded that coltan has played a significant role in sustaining and facilitating conflict in eastern Congo. Aloys Tegera who directs the Pole Institute, a nongovernmental social-research institute in Goma, eastern Congo say that, ‘coltan fuels war, nobody can deny that’. Jackson (2003) highlights that coltan extraction is an, ‘important point at which local, national and regional conflicts in the Great Lakes region (eastern Congo) come together and influence each other’. Coltan has altered power relations within the Congo. Traditional state authority has ceased and has given way to military might and to young people emboldened and enriched by mineral extraction. Communities in the region have become profoundly ethnicised as a result. Jackson (2003) says that, ‘coltan has dangerously fused economic, political and socio-cultural interests’. This is illustrated by military objectives of the warring factions becoming increasingly realigned towards ownership of major mineral deposits. This has resulted in peculiar dynamics within the war in Congo where collaboration and economic alliances between different warring parties have occurred to strengthen the resource exploitation capabilities.

The war-economy has altered the objectives of militia which have progressively turned from providing ethnic protection to racketeering and economic exploitation of local populations. The UN Panel of Inquiry (2002) has found that a systematic and intimate relationship between economics and military activity has occurred in the DRC. The report shows that coltan has, ‘permitted the Rwandan army to sustain its presence in the DRC. The army has provided protection and security to the individuals and companies extracting the mineral. These have made money which is shared with the army, which in turn continues to provide the enabling environment to continue exploitation’ (UN Panel of Inquiry, 2001,: Para 130).

Harden (2001) described globalisation as causing ‘havoc in a desperate country’. She continues, ‘for the sake of our electronic toys, guerrillas were getting rich, gorillas were getting slaughtered, and the local people were getting paid next to nothing to ruin their country’s environment’. This type of emotional analogy is not far from the truth. The DRC is a country endowed with a unique biodiversity, wide mineral and forest resources and rich soils for agriculture but is being pillaged and experts in the region are incapable of stopping it. Aloys Tegera who directs a local NGO highlights the desperate reality of Congo’s troubled history and how the current conflict and coltan exploitation by rebel militias is just one of a litany of tragic events to strike the Congo in its troubled history, ‘Of course Rwandans are pillaging us, but they are not the first to do it and they are no worse than the others. King Leopold did it. The Belgians did it. Mobutu and the Americans did it. The most sorrowful thing I have to live with is that we are incapable of coming up with an elite that can run things with Congolese interests in mind’ (Harden, 2001).

International resolutions to the problems affecting the DRC are complicated and the impact of their actions could further exacerbate them. An international embargo on natural resources such as coltan could increase pressure for conflict resolution, however the impact of removing what is for many Congolese, the only source of income, could further impoverish the population and increase rebel desperation. A local chief illustrates the problems which would impact a post-coltan Congo, ‘We can’t go back to the way things were before coltan, because before, we had cows and goats, but since the war there have been none’.

The vicious cycle of war in the DRC has been exacerbated by the illegal extraction and exploitation of natural resources, particularly coltan, which have taken a conflict-sustaining role.

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