Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blood mobile phones fan DRC’s murderous conflict

By RASNA WARAH

According to last month’s edition of African Business magazine, the total mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is estimated to be $24 trillion – equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the United States combined.

The DRC has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper. This makes the DRC potentially the richest country in the world.

But this central African country has been ranked among the poorest and most underdeveloped countries on this planet.

If this fact is not enough to shock you, then you might also want to hear this: in the last decade alone, more than four million people have been killed and countless have been raped because of conflict.

In fact, current estimates indicate that 1,500 people are killed in this blood-thirsty country every single day. Yet no one in the international community has yet declared what is happening there as a holocaust.

The United Nations has sent a huge contingent of 17,000 troops to contain the situation but the slaughter continues. Most of the fighting has been occurring in the eastern part of the country, which produces one per cent of the world’s coltan – a substance that is used in mobile phones.

DRC’s case shows that mineral and other sources of wealth do not always lead to development, and can actually be the cause of impoverishment.

Greed for control of the mineral wealth is behind some of the most violent atrocities. A map of Congo’s mineral deposits shows that the violence is most acute in the most mineral-rich parts of the country.

Coltan is produced near North Kivu and Goma, where rebel leader Laurent Nkunda launched the most aggressive offensive against the government.

Low-intensity conflicts have been occurring in the northeastern parts of the country, which contains gold deposits.

We all know that the Belgian colonialists and the despot Mobutu Sese Seko raped the country until it bled to death.

But it would be extremely naïve for us to believe that rebels in the DRC are not after the same things the Belgians and the Mobutu craved – wealth obtained from minerals.

It would also be extremely foolish to assume that the fighting is not benefiting neighbouring countries – which act as conduits for the minerals to the world markets.

What's more, foreign companies control the mines that are free from rebel control. This means a large share of the mineral profits remain in foreign hands.

Fortunately, neighbouring Rwanda is wisening up, and in January joined forces with the DRC government to flush out and arrest Nkunda and facilitate a ceasefire.

But with all the mineral wealth at stake, can the world expect the violence to end once and for all? And what about the lucrative trade of illegal mining? Can we expect a process whereby minerals are certified as legal before they are put on the world market?
It took years for diamond mining companies to adopt a certification system that would curtail the export and import of “blood diamonds”.

But now a few civil society groups and non-governmental organisations are realising that it is not just diamonds that are tainted with human blood, but other minerals as well.

A recent report aired on the BBC talked of a campaign to stop the production of what can be termed as “blood mobile phones”.

The DRC’s coltan has been identified as one of the leading causes of the conflict in the eastern part of the country, and attempts are being made to ensure that mobile phone manufacturers stop using coltan that is sourced there.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that DRC will emerge as a developed country once the fighting stops.

Despite registering a growth rate of 6 per cent in 2007, this vast territory lacks the basic infrastructure that could help sustain growth and promote prosperity.

New players, such as China, are investing heavily in DRC. According to African Business, the Chinese government has announced a $9 billion investment in the country, a third of which will go to mining projects, while the rest will be used to build 2,400 miles of road, 2,000 miles of railway, 32 hospitals, 145 health centres and two universities.

In return, China will receive 10 million tonnes of copper and 400,000 tonnes of cobalt. The scramble for DRC’s minerals, it seems, has now moved to another level. Let us hope the killings will stop, too.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations. ([email protected])

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