Coltan, the 'blood mineral' of Congo

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


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.

"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."

"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."