Conflict minerals: How to help Congo


The Dodd-Frank legislation seeks to end trade in conflict minerals from Eastern Congo, though analysts still disagree on its lasting effect on the region. Here a man working in a gold mine is pictured on February 23, 2009, in Chudja, near Bunia, north eastern Congo.


Lionel Healing

When President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act into law, much of the conversation and debate was centered on its goal of reforming Wall Street and its potential to prevent another financial crisis.

But within the act, which came into effect on April 1, 2011, is also a provision dealing specifically with eastern Congo. The section requires American companies to ensure the raw materials they use to make their products are not tied to the conflict in Congo, by auditing the mineral supply chains.

Months later, analysts and aid groups — who all want to see an end to the violence — still hotly contest how much the provision has helped.

Fidel Bafilemba, a field-research consultant for the Enough Project in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was born and raised in Goma, a city near Congo's border with Rwanda. He said he believes the “world has an obligation to work out a way to put an end to conflict minerals,” and the Dodd-Frank Act is the first step toward accomplishing that goal.

GlobalPost talked with Bafilemba, 38, about conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and what he thinks should be done to create peace in the war-torn region. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

GlobalPost: Why do conflict minerals matter to the Congo?

Fidel Bafilemba: Ever since we have had technological advancement in this world, it has had an immediate impact on the Congolese people. [Belgian] King Leopold II’s enterprises claimed over 10 million Congolese lives, and that was because of the rubber market. People wanted latex for tires.

Second, during World War II, when the US needed uranium to make its first atomic bomb, this mineral was sourced from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga.

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Third, it’s been 17 years since Congo’s neighboring countries — Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola and others — began claiming security reasons to invade Congo. Yes, Congo has been home to militia groups from these countries, but the invasions have always led to a scramble for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, known today as conflict minerals. Out of that, over 5.5 million Congolese have perished at the hand of the militias.

Why are tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold so strategic?

If you want to build airplanes, computers, TV sets, cell phones and so forth, you can’t make that technology without these minerals. They are key to technological advancement today.

All we’re calling for is a certification process. Congo has had a mining code that has been in place for years, but the government has never been incentivized to follow it until the recent legislative pressure on the Congolese to disclose the source of their minerals.

More: Opinion: How Washington undermines stability in Congo

Because of US legislation imposing transparency and fair business in the mining sector, the Congolese government is implementing a traceability scheme on the ground, which includes the construction of trading centers for the minerals, the training of the mining police, the registration of any mining-business persons, and most importantly, the demilitarization of the mining sites.

And as a result of demilitarization, the UN group of experts, the government, local mining corporates and civil-society groups just finished a process called the “qualification and validation of conflict-free mines.” At that end, we validated 60 percent of North Kivu and South Kivu mines, which is a big achievement.

How do you respond to criticism that the Dodd-Frank Act will take away jobs from the Congolese people and will cause the Congolese economy to suffer?

It’s not even a good job. It’s not a job. It’s enslavement.

Almost no mining sites in eastern Congo are accessible, and the only way communities can get access to manufactured items are for them to be flown in by airplane. That means if a bottle of beer costs $1 in Goma, it becomes $5 in these mining sites. While at the end of the day, three days after they have worked so hard, they get $1.50. So, would you call that a job?

We can humanize the mining sector by diversifying the economic activities so people have more choices and by complying with the Congolese legislation so as there is something in return to the local communities.

People have been claiming the minerals are leading the Congolese economy. The gross domestic production per capita for one Congolese per year is $180 — you call that an economy? 

And why are some people praising the conflict minerals’ revenues alone? They're forgetting that in a city like Goma we have about 270 international aid agencies, and that means millions and millions of dollars are being funneled into the local economy. It’s just not sustained from these blood revenues from the minerals, but it’s rather sustained by the aid agencies that we have in eastern Congo today.

What can the world do to help stop the exploitation of conflict minerals?

If it were not for the US constituency calling on their representatives to pass the Dodd-Frank Act, this would have never happened. But this legislation is under threat today, because of the US Chamber of Commerce lobbying hard, and threatening the SEC with lawsuits if it issues the bill implementation regulations.

So what can the American people do? Everyone can use his cell phone and text CONGO to 30644 to join in the Raise Hope For Congo campaign. That is aimed to call on US representatives, the Obama administration and the State Department to weigh in to prevent a phased-in or delayed publication of the SEC regulations.

For countries like Rwanda and Uganda, which have economies that have been built on conflict minerals, it’s not going to be easy for them to back off and genuinely join in the process to clean up the business. Because of that, we need the US administration to be a conductor of different certification efforts in the region today. That requires no money. It requires only the will to do it. And the US administration can do it.

Check out GlobalPost's series Blood diamonds are forever to learn more about the struggle to end the exploitation of conflict minerals and blood diamonds around the world.