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The tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo: A battle of circumstances & resources

The tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo: A battle of circumstances & resources

By Eleanor Sarasohn

In terms of untapped mineral reserves, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is arguably the richest country in the world, with its estimated $24 trillion worth of natural resources. The DRC is a country of superlatives, with vast reserves of coltan, gold, cassiterite, and tin mined in eastern Congo, and reserves of diamonds, copper, cobalt, manganese, lead, and zinc located elsewhere. Despite its incredible array of natural riches, the average per capita income is $680, with a 71.3 percent poverty rate. The DCR is the world’s poorest country per capita. Even worse, as a result of Congo’s civil wars, more than 5.4 million people have been killed since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since WWII. The wars lasted from 1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2003, involving 9 countries and more than 40 rebel groups. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced. According to a 2011 study, an estimated 48 women were raped every hour across the country. Eastern Congo has been called a human rights catastrophe.

DRC is a country whose history has exemplified a paradox known as the resource curse. Countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer resources. Great exportable natural wealth increases volatility due to an over-reliance on global commodities prices, distorting exchange rates, and driving cycles of boom and bust. For example, coltan sold for $40 per pound in January 2000, but by December of 2000, it sold for $380 per pound; by July 2001 coltan fetched only $100 per pound, and by 2013, the price of coltan had dropped back to $40 per pound.

During the past 15 years, numerous UN reports and think tank studies have documented that “minerals were the engine of the conflict” and “the principle method used by the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) to raise funds.” Major funds. As in, armed groups were making an estimated $185 million per year. They control access to more than half of the mines, collect illegal taxes and bribes, receive kickbacks from stocks, and embezzle. Electronics companies essentially funded 15 years of civil wars in the Congo by supporting the $2 billion black market for tungsten, tantalum, tin (the 3Ts), and gold. The 3Ts and gold gained enough notoriety to be regarded as conflict minerals.

Tantalum is an excellent conductor, used to make electrical capacitors  found in cell phones, gaming devices, and computers. Tantalum is the primary mineral extracted from coltan. The DRC was the world’s largest producer of “blood coltan” (i.e. coltan sourced in a conflict zone). A UN report states, “the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because of its lucrative nature, has created a win-win situation for all belligerents … the only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people.” Ironically, only 2 percent of Congolese have Internet access, and there are only 28 mobile phones per 100 people as of 2012. The global average is 103 phones per hundred people.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act requires American companies to trace and audit their supply chains to ensure their products are not financing violence in eastern Congo. Conflict minerals are extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting. According to the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, in 2010 (prior to Dodd-Frank being passed), “almost every mining deposit was controlled by a military group.” There have been some notable changes since Dodd-Frank was passed: the profits of armed groups have decreased by 65 percent, the FDLR have significantly reduced in its size, and several of the armed groups that used to control mines in eastern Congo have disappeared, and armed groups are no longer present at 67 percent of the mines that were surveyed. Children once accounted for 40 percent of the population working in mines; after Dodd-Frank was implemented, child labour seemed to vanish.

DRC President Joseph Kabila tried to quell the violence by instituting a 6-month mining ban in 2010 that caused many miners to end up jobless. More jobs were lost when some western companies responded to the new law by going “Congo-free” to avoid any bad press that might result from associating with warlords. China buys tantalum whether it was conflict-free or not, and enjoys discounts of up to 60 percent. There are fewer jobs and much diminished pay for miners. Unfortunately, the loss of jobs and wages has caused an increasing number of crimes in eastern Congo. According to one Congolese miner, “Many people in Congo are in prison because of the low prices of minerals … hunger can make a bandit out of anyone.” Not even multi-million dollar planes are safe.

Bonobos are found only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but they prefer to make love, not war. Sometimes called the pygmy chimpanzee, you can distinguish a bonobo from a chimpanzee by the bonobo’s pink lips, hair that parts in the middle, and smaller stature. Their behavior also marks them apart. They use sexual contact to bond, to appease, to make up after a fight, to greet each other, to cement alliances, to ease tensions, to alleviate stress and competitiveness. Bonobos are peaceful, empathetic, sexually-liberated … and likely extinct within the next 50 years due to habitat loss and commercial poaching.


Eleanor Sarasohn is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in English, and a Kentucky native.

This article was originally published on The Common Reader.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt

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