The violence behind Congo's mineral trade

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MARCO WERMAN: Yesterday Hilary Clinton was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She traveled east to a war zone to speak out against rampant sexual violence there. But she also focused on the causes of the conflict. That includes Congo's lucrative minerals trade. Armed groups in the east fight to control the mines and then use the proceeds to fund their operations. The World's Jeb Sharp reports.

JEB SHARP: Congo's mineral wealth is legendary. Its mines supply some of the most valuable metals in the world including tungsten, tin, and coltan. And the United Nations as well as advocacy groups have long documented the way the trade in minerals there fuels the conflict in the eastern part of the country. Colin Thomas-Jensen is with the advocacy group Enough.

COLIN THOMAS JENSEN: The lack of state authority coupled with abundant natural wealth in Congo allows armed groups to control mines, to control taxation routes, and to make tons of money. And in the case of eastern Congo we estimate that armed groups make anywhere from $100 to $180 million last year from taxation and trade in illegal minerals.

SHARP: And Thomas-Jensen says there's a good chance that some of those minerals are ending up in your cell phone.

THOMAS-JENSEN: Every time your cell phone vibrates the vibration is helped and caused by a little piece of tungsten. That's what tungsten's used for. Tin is used for solder to hold electronic parts together. And coltan, or tantalum, is a critical element in cell phone batteries.

SHARP: So when Hilary Clinton called on the international community yesterday to start looking at steps to try to prevent the mineral wealth of the DRC ending up in the hands of those who fund the violence advocacy groups were heartened. Amy Barry is with the group Global Witness in London.

AMY BARRY: Even before she arrived, Secretary Clinton's choice of countries was important. We were struck by the fact that a number of countries that she visited were effected in one way or another by what's known as the resource curse. So when did she did speak about the issue of minerals, mineral wealth in the DRC, as an underlying driver of the conflict that was something that we do see a form of progress.

SHARP: Global Witness has been documenting the problem of so-called conflict minerals for a long time. The group put out a new report on Congo just last month. According to Barry the report showed that all the armed groups in eastern Congo, including the National Army, are involved in the mines. And yet the issue is rarely discussed in coverage of the conflict she says.

AMY BARRY: Often the focus of press reports or political dialogue on the conflict in the DRC is around political differences between the groups of between the countries, Rwanda and the DRC for example, or ethnic divisions. In actual fact Global Witness has been saying for a long time that the underlying economic drivers, this vast natural resources wealth, is something that really must be addressed if the conflict is going to come to an end.

SHARP: As for those steps Clinton mentioned Barry says companies buying, trading, and processing minerals as well as end users like computer and cell phone manufacturers should find out where their minerals are coming from. She says governments can take steps to make sure that happens as well as help the government of the DRC take back control of the industry inside its own borders. And of course consumers themselves can put pressure on both governments and companies. Again Colin Thomas-Jensen of Enough.

THOMAS-JENSEN: The best way to put pressure on any industry is through consumers and I think what we're starting to see, and it's early yet, what we're starting to see in the United States a growing number of people who are aware of the situation in eastern Congo, appalled by it and who are learning about this connection between the trade and conflict minerals and consumer electronics. The minerals that are fueling this war are components, are critical elements of cell phones, laptops, mp3 players.

SHARP: What Thomas-Jensen doesn't want is for companies to simply pull up stakes and take their trade elsewhere as some companies have already done. The idea isn't to boycott minerals from eastern Congo of have a moratorium on mining there; that only hurts the Congolese. What advocates do want is for companies to make sure any minerals they do buy aren't passing through tainted hands much as the diamond industry learned to avoid the so-called blood diamonds from West Africa that once fueled conflict there. For The World I'm Jeb Sharp.