From: Tsegai Emmanuel (email@example.com)
Date: Sun Nov 09 2008 - 22:35:06 EST
Published on Sunday, November 9, 2008 by The Telegraph/UK
How The Mobile Phone in Your Pocket is Helping to Pay For The Civil War in
by Mike Pflanz
GOMA - After two hours, drenched in sweat, he tugs on a cord tied to his
waist and is pulled back to the surface, carrying with him a 30 kilogram
sack of raw columbium-tantalite ore.
[image: [More than 80 per cent of the world's coltan is in Africa, and 80
percent of that lies in territory controlled by Congo's various ragtag rebel
groups, armed militia and its corrupt and underfunded national army.]]More
than 80 per cent of the world's coltan is in Africa, and 80 percent of that
lies in territory controlled by Congo's various ragtag rebel groups, armed
militia and its corrupt and underfunded national army.
Few people have heard of this rare mineral, known as coltan, even though
millions of people in the developed world rely on it. But global demand for
the mineral, and a handful of other materials used in everything from
cellphones to soup tins, is keeping the armies of Congo's ceaseless wars
More than 80 per cent of the world's coltan is in Africa, and 80 percent of
that lies in territory controlled by Congo's various ragtag rebel groups,
armed militia and its corrupt and underfunded national army.
Despite Friday's ceasefire summit in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and visits
to Congo by earnest international politicians and diplomats, there will be
no peace until the economic forces driving the conflict are addressed,
"Until now, this question has been avoided on the basis that it is too
sensitive or could derail peace talks," said Patrick Alley, director of
Global Witness, a British charity which has investigated the militarisation
of Congo's mineral trade.
"That is a short-sighted view. If international dialogues continue to ignore
this critical aspect of the conflict, they will not find long-term
In Congo's North Kivu province, scene of the current bloody conflict, the
supply chain that links the sweating miner to the mobile telephone in your
pocket starts around Masisi district, the rebel-held area 110 miles
northeast of the provincial capital, Goma.
Back up on the surface again, the miner hands his sack of ore to his shift
boss, who pays him less than a dollar per kilogramme. Some mines also use
child labour, often for no pay at all.
The rocks are then packed into even heavier 50kg loads and passed to
porters, who hoist them on to their backs and set off, in flip flops or
Wellington boots, for the two-day walk through the mountains to the town of
There, the ore is sold once again, now for just over a dollar a kilogramme,
to a middleman known as a negociant. He consolidates several loads and calls
in an aircraft to land at the town's grass airstrip, collect the rocks and
fly them to Goma.
Dotted across Goma, behind high walls and locked gates, there are hundreds
of small-scale traders called comptoirs. Men in dusty overalls sit with
large piles of rocks in front of them, using a trained eye to scan scan for
the chunks likely to yield the best-quality product, samples of which they
then grind to assess its coltan purity and how much to pay the negociant
accordingly. In an office to the rear, the comptoir director sits in front
of his laptop, scanning coltan and cassiterite prices on the internet site
of the London Metal Exchange.
"Things have progressed a bit today because we are able to see what is the
best price instantly, rather than having to guess as we did before the
internet," said Joseph Nzanzu, a comptoir director in Goma.
"But still the process, the negociants, how they come to us with the ore,
how we grade it and argue over the price, this is the way it has been for
Gathering hundreds of kilogrammes together, the comptoir loads the ore on to
trucks which set off for Mombasa on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, five days'
hard driving away through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.
>From here, cargo ships carry the coltan to processing plants in the Far
East, although it is also traded as a commodity on the London Metal Exchange
and in Belgium, Congo's former colonial power. The ore, still hunks of rock
just as it was when it came out of the mine, is ground down and refined to
extract tantalum, a heat resistant powder which is sold to firms making the
capacitors which are found in mobile telephones and other electrical
Finally, the equipment manufacturers buy the capacitors, without which their
goods would not work. From North and South Kivu, a total of 428 metric
tonnes of coltan was exported in 2007, according to the provincial ministry
of mines, worth around £2 million. But these figures are notoriously
inaccurate, and take no account of illegally smuggled minerals, likely to
make up almost as much again.
There is nothing illegal in buying or using coltan, despite concerns that
some of profits from the trade in the Congo helps fund its myriad armed
groups. All of the big electronics manufacturers say that they make every
effort to ensure that the components in their products are from legitimate
mines, either in Congo or in other coltan-producing countries including
Brazil and Argentina.
But in Congo's anarchic environment, it is impossible for customers to know
for sure that the tantalum in their mobile phone, DVD player, PlayStation or
desktop computer did not come from a rebel-held mine. Buyers say that ore
from these mines is mixed with that from legitimate mines, and they cannot
tell which is which. There is no equivalent of the Kimberley Process, the
international system which certifies that diamonds are from conflict-free
The links between Congo's vast riches and its blood-stained history stretch
back to the Belgian colonial era, when King Leopold II forced labourers onto
his rubber plantations and ordered his agents to chop off the hands of
workers who failed to fulfil their harvest quotas.
But throughout the latter half of the 1990s and the beginning of this
decade, as Congo descended into two wars, its mineral wealth began directly
to stoke its conflict. At the height of a coltan price boom in 2001, the UN
estimated that rebel groups were earning $20 million a month from mineral
exploitation, though the market price has since fallen.
A 2003 United Nations investigation into the illegal exploitation of natural
resources accused both Rwanda and Uganda of prolonging their armed
incursions into Congo in order to continue their plunder. Peace was supposed
to have come to the region that year. But in the east, the rebels and armed
militia remained and proliferated, extending their reach into the mines
opened by a series of state mining companies and then abandoned as war swept
Today, these armed groups earn their money either by directly controlling
the mines themselves, or by taxing lorries as they pass through their
territories. Alongside them, Congo's own army runs various mines and its
officers pocket the profits.
There have been calls for an international embargo of the trade in the
country's minerals. But that would only hurt its poorest citizens, who have
little else to do to earn money, said Mr Nzanzu.
Instead, according to Mr Alley of Global Witness, buyers must double efforts
to ensure that they do not trade in any mineral tainted by contact with any
of Congo's armed groups.
"For as long as there are buyers who are willing to trade, directly or
indirectly, with groups responsible for grave human rights abuses, there is
no incentive for these groups to lay down their arms," he said.
"It is not acceptable for buyers to claim they do not or cannot know where
the minerals come from. They have a responsibility to find out exactly where
the minerals were produced and by whom.
"If there is any likelihood that they have passed through the hands of armed
groups or army units, they should refuse to buy them."
(c) 2008 The Telegraph
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