“Conflict Minerals” in Ituri
Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Dan Fahey. Dan is a consultant and grad student at UC-Berkeley who researches the mineral trade in North Kivu and Ituri. Here, he focuses on some of the misconceptions about the mineral trade in the region that have dominated the advocacy debate on this issue:
The Ituri District in northeastern Congo is well known for two main reasons: conflict and minerals. The war in Ituri, which lasted more or less from 1999-2007, caused the deaths of approximately 60,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The minerals in Ituri are mainly gold, and during the war various armed groups sustained themselves in part through gold revenues. That’s the bad news.
The good news is the war in Ituri is over. There are still some rebels in the bush in southern Ituri, but most of the district is in a fragile state of peace, including the main gold mining area around Mongbwalu. Many rebels put down their guns, picked up shovels, and now eke out a living producing gold.
The trade in Ituri’s gold has shifted since the war ended. Approximately ten major traders, all of who are Congolese, now dominate the gold trade. Most of these businessmen also have a variety of other commercial interests including hotels, gas stations, and trade in consumer products. Most of these traders also illegally export their gold to Kampala, Uganda, or take it directly to Dubai or China, where they trade gold for consumer goods that they later sell in Congo. But they are investing some of their riches in developing towns like Bunia and Butembo, which is a positive sign.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “conflict minerals” in Congo. Advocacy groups like the Enough Project have raised and spent large sums of money creating the impression that wherever there are mines in Congo, there is war and sexual violence. They have done this through the complicity of naïve journalists (see here), and through their own deceptive work, on display this week.
Yet putting aside concerns about Enough’s spending and motivations, you have to give them credit for getting Congress to pass the “Conflict Minerals Act.” The merits and drawbacks of this legislation have been discussed elsewhere, but my point here is threefold.
First, I want to call attention to the fact that large parts of Congo where minerals are produced are at peace. This includes the Ituri District. The working conditions for miners are extremely difficult and often dangerous, but in most of Congo’s mineral-producing areas, local and international businessmen control the mines and the trade, not armed groups. Enough seems to have mistakenly inferred that the few mines its researchers have visited in the Kivus are representative of the Congo as a whole. They raise money by creating the impression that the entire country is still at war, but it’s just not true.
Second, just as UN sanctions merely shifted and did not stop the flow of minerals from Congo, so too the US legislation is unlikely to have any impact on the ground in Congo. Congo is not a major global producer of “The 3 Ts and Gold” that Enough has focused on. According to the USGS, Congo produces approximately 0.6% of the world’s tungsten, 3.8% of the world’s tin, 0.1% of the world’s niobium (columbium), 8.6% of the world’s tantalum, and 0.4% of the world’s gold. Thus, it is easy for the producers of electronics destined for the USA to obtain their “conflict minerals” from other sources. The conflict minerals will continue to flow out Congo at the same rate as they always have, only their destination may change, e.g. to China or India.
Third, the entire notion that Congo’s wars can be stopped through legislation in Washington, DC is incredibly misguided. Ultimately, the Congolese people are going to save their own country. I know many Congolese who are working tirelessly, with little or no money, to end war in the Kivus and reform the minerals trade in Congo. Their efforts are far more important for the future of Congo than the self-serving efforts of Beltway Bandits like the Enough Project.