Coltan, the 'blood mineral' of Congo

Photo from GeSI.

A mineral that's used to make mobile phones is helping to finance the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, say NGOs.

Since 25 October, war has been raging once again in Congo. Under direction of Tutsi leader and former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front Laurent Nkunda, soldiers have once again picked up their guns to fight the Congolese Army. Our Observers take the opportunity to consider the responsibilities of mobile phone manufacturers in the war.

According to Carina Tertsakian of the NGO Global Witness, and Colette Braeckman, a specialist on Africa, it's time to investigate the trafficking of coltan, a mineral which they say is extracted in the east of the country through exploitation, and which partly finances the rebels, along with the equally deplorable gold and cassiterite (tin oxide) trades. After Liberia's "blood diamond", here's the blood mineral of Congo.

Thanks to our italian Observers Alberto Celani who alerted us to this story.

"Profits go on buying arms [and] some luxury things like villas"

Colette Braeckman is a journalist specialised in Africa. She writes for the daily Belgian publication. Her blog.

You hear twenty planes a day fly over from Kivu to Rwanda, bringing minerals. You see children digging in the soil, and you see rebel groups, you see that they're very young boys. In camps you meet the ones who've escaped. They tell you they were picked up on the way to school. Everyone knows it, but they close their eyes to it. Even the UN can't do anything.

It will be an easy process, stopping the trafficking. Congo doesn't have a very effective army - which is the legacy of Mobutu. They can't use local army generals or police because they're corrupt - they're playing in it too. They go to Kivu saying they're going to wage war [against the rebels], but really, they're going to make money in this business! They make more profit independently - the Congolese Army, former Tutu militias... they don't want the situation to change.

There are so many actors and each has his own links. And there's competition between corrupt generals and rebels. In the case of the militia groups profits go on buying arms on the black market. With the generals, some go on arms, but lots of it goes on luxury things like villas. The profits are funding the war for everyone - both sides. It's a self-supporting war.

For me the first thing that needs to be done is for the Congolese government to control the traffic with border control and tax the trade - or to create a sort of international blockade. For now, the region gets away with it because it's backed by Rwanda. Rwanda closes its eyes to Laurent Nkunda's recruitment scheme. They do nothing to prevent it - in fact the Rwandese army even delivers recruits to Nkunda. Also, as Laurent Nkunda like to boast, he's got some private support from the US."

"These firms (…) don't ask any questions"

Carina Tertsakian works for Global Witness, an NGO that investigates the exploitation of natural resources. She specialises on the DRC.

The minerals go through a whole chain of buyers, traders, companies and middlemen, and that's one of the excuses the manufacturing companies use. There are tens of thousands of people working as miners in eastern Congo. Some of the mines are controlled by the rebels, and some are controlled by the army. There are also civilians who go out and start digging away in the hope of finding a few francs by selling what they find to buyers who come to the mines. These civilians might be found by militia groups and taken over. And in areas where you have armed groups or the army, there is forced labour, and we know that young boys are involved.

The minerals from these mines are bought by various Congolese businessmen and sold on to traders, known as "comptoirs", in border towns. The minerals leave the country in raw form through neighbouring cities, and then travel to other countries where they are processed. This happens in many places, for example, Malaysia. It's then bought by various foreign and multinational firms. I couldn't say for a fact that big IT and mobile phone companies like Nokia are buying products directly from these armed rebel groups. But I can say that I don't know of any company that verifies and carries out checks about the origin of their supplies. These firms should absolutely be aware of where the product has come from, but they don't ask any questions.

We are sifting through statistics about exports to find which companies are buying the minerals and from where. It is possible, but not easy, to work your way back along the supply chain. And that's what buyers should be doing. Governments should be putting pressure on. The OECD guidelines are very clear, but in the end, it's a voluntary mechanism."


dirty rings in a "certified" supply chain

Me as analist I can say that international firms are under the spotlight frequently for bad practice in the supply chain, big companies such as Banks linked with war financing dirty trades, the same for firms in alimentary fields when a part of the chain is connected with poorest country as suppliers. Exploitation and bad practices in general affect our everyday lives and even if many firms declare themselves "exploitation free" or "ethic firm" the part of the chain connect with the 3rd world is really hard to be controlled. Is it really impossible to control all the supply chain for products sold in western countries and sold by western firms?

Expo 2015 in Milano, Italy


By the way, thank you so much Alberto for alerting us on that story. And for the contacts you gave us. Good work from Milan !

Thank you for reporting on this

Thanks for making this report. The diabolical coltan and mineral business is the true cause behind the Congo's misery. More than 80% of all coltan is sold in Kigali, and Rwanda doesn't even have a single coltan mine - so this means it plunders the Congo. That's something we all know.

But the West doesn't go free here either. A few years ago the UN Security Council issued a report stating the names of more than 80 companies from the U.S. and Europe (Anglo-American, mainly), which were directly or indirectly responsible for fueling the war for minerals. These companies are responsible for millions of dead.

And we have their names. So why don't we punish them? National governments still take the lives of millions of Congolese for granted. This is shameful.

So let's do it another way. I would want to know which products contain "death minerals" from Congo. My mobile phone, my laptop, my solar panels, or my iPod: I want to know whether I have blood on my hands.

If this information is made available, then I know which products to buy and which not. Our governments are too cowardly anyways to tackle the issue. So let us, "consumers" do whatever we can.

bloody minerals

I think the west cares less about the Congolese people, the exploitatin has been going on for decades, many nation have been used to get the bloody minerals from DRC, for examle Uganda, the government is directly involved they get mineral from slave like labor, there was this incidence when the Ugandan army entered Congo and the Army generals came home with booty of timber, diamonds. They go unpunished only rewards by USA and UN recently Uganda was elected to the security concil, awarding dictators, the country is undemocratic.. the USA gov benefits alot from those multinational companies and so there is nothing they can do only watch the people of the third world die