Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Colin Kinniburgh - Beyond “Conflict Minerals”: The Congo’s Resource Curse Lives On

NB - This report shows how daily life in modern society is dependent upon slave-like working conditions and incessant violence. It also shows how thin is the line separating formal from informal labour, legality and illegality in production processes, and how little the nation-state matters, except as a means of ideological & military control of labour: DS

The war economy has set the standard for working conditions in mines throughout the DRC. Children as young as six years old still make up an estimated 40 percent of the mining workforce. It’s no secret by now that the supply chain feeding our smartphones and laptops is not pretty. Thanks to a flurry of media coverage of Foxconn and other Chinese manufacturers, we know about the dismal conditions at the factories that churn out iPhones. Less is known about what happens to our phones and computers and those clunky old monitors when we throw them away.  Most of the minerals that go into circuit boards aren’t recycled... a significant portion of the bewildering mix of elements that go into any single smartphone—from exotic-sounding dysprosium and gadolinium to the more mundane-sounding tin—is mined from a select few sites around the world. Of these minerals, a handful—most notably the “three Ts” (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) and gold—have in recent years achieved notoriety as “conflict minerals.” That’s because many of these minerals originate in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the nation at the center of Africa that, for the past decade and a half, has been home to the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Since 1996 a series of wars there are estimated to have killed upward of 5 million Congolese people
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January 6, 2014. It’s the opening night of the Consumer Electronics Show, and it seems as if the whole of Silicon Valley has descended on the Las Vegas Convention Center and Venetian hotel to peddle its wares. On the show floor, a company called Sensoria introduces a “smart bra” designed to accommodate fitness tracking technology, while rivals brandish other “wearables.” A startup called Parrot introduces its Jumping Sumo toy drone. Tractive unveils a dog remote. Tech gurus and A-list celebs celebrate the rise of the Internet of Things, with its data-crunching onesies and bottle warmers. As the night wears on, T-Mobile CEO John Legere, wearing a bright pink company T-shirt, crashes a swanky AT&T party, only to be kicked out fifteen minutes later. “I just wanted to hear Macklemore,” he tells a reporter.

At a "conflict-free" copper mine in Katanga (Fairphone/Flickr)
But at his keynote in the Palazzo Auditorium, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich strikes a more serious tone, leaving behind the Internet of Things to remind the audience of the things that power the Internet. “In sub-Saharan Africa,” a video behind him announces, “there is war that feeds off of global demand for electronics. The place is the DRC—the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The region is ground zero for conflict minerals.” Grim statistics flash across the screen. But Intel offers a solution: a “conflict-free” microprocessor, which Krzanich promises will contain no minerals whose extraction funds rebel militias in the eastern DRC. The audience responds with tepid applause.
It’s no secret by now that the supply chain feeding our smartphones and laptops is not pretty. Thanks to a flurry of media coverage of Foxconn and other Chinese manufacturers, we know about the dismal conditions at the factories that churn out iPhones. Less is known about what happens to our phones and computers and those clunky old monitors when we throw them away. Many of them are shipped to places like Guiyu, China, or to the slums surrounding cities like Delhi and Accra, where men, women, and children make a living dismantling them with hammers and blowtorches. The metals stripped out of old circuit boards become fodder for new circuit boards, and the cycle continues.
Most of the minerals that go into circuit boards aren’t recycled, however. In fact, a significant portion of the bewildering mix of elements that go into any single smartphone—from exotic-sounding dysprosium and gadolinium to the more mundane-sounding tin—is mined from a select few sites around the world. Of these minerals, a handful—most notably the “three Ts” (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) and gold—have in recent years achieved notoriety as “conflict minerals.”
That’s because many of these minerals originate in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the nation at the center of Africa that, for the past decade and a half, has been home to the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Since 1996 a series of wars there are estimated to have killed upward of 5 million Congolese people, with over 90 percent of these deaths due not directly to violence but to war-exacerbated disease and starvation. In the areas worst affected by the conflict—the provinces of North and South Kivu and the district of Ituri (Orientale province), which border with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi—over 80 percent of the population reports having been displaced at least once, and hundreds of thousands still live in squalid camps. Nearly fifty women are raped every hour across the country, according to a 2011 study, earning the DRC its reputation as the worst place on earth to be a woman.
The litany of atrocities quickly becomes numbing, and the list of rebel factions involved—from the Hutu-extremist FDLR (Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda) to the Ugandan Islamists of the ADF-NALU to the assortment of Mai-Mai “self-defense” militias scattered across the country—can be dizzying. Little wonder, then, that for the better part of the eighteen years since a Rwandan-led invasion sparked the First Congo War, the world has looked the other way.
The Great Congo Wars - The story of the Congo wars begins with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As massacres within Rwanda led to the deaths of some 800,000 people in 100 days, still vaster numbers of both Hutu and Tutsi fled across the border into neighboring Zaire (as the Congo was then known). Among the refugees were Hutu génocidaires—belonging to both the erstwhile Rwandan army and extremist militias—who had been defeated in the conflict by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). With the Ugandan- and U.S.-trained Paul Kagame at its helm, the RPF seized power in July 1994. The new government’s first priority was to wipe out thegénocidaires who, having regrouped in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire, sought to carry on their war against the RPF from across the border.
By this point, Zaire’s once-mighty dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was losing his grip on power and could do little to contain the chaos unfolding along the country’s eastern border. Moreover, his longtime support for the Hutu génocidaires put him in the crosshairs of the new Rwandan regime. In mid-1996 the Rwandan government convened Zaire’s four principal opposition leaders in Kigali with the intent of catalyzing Mobutu’s overthrow. The RPF then used the Zairian rebels as a cover for its U.S.-approved invasion of the DRC in October of that year. Atrocities mounted until, in May 1997, the ailing Mobutu was overthrown and replaced by the rebels’ political leader, Laurent Kabila, marking the end of the First Congo War.
Within a year, however, Kabila fell out with his Rwandan backers, who mounted a second invasion in July 1998. Over the course of the following year, a half-dozen regional powers were drawn into the conflict. Rebel factions splintered, leaning alternately toward Rwanda and Uganda for support, even as uniformed troops from both countries continued their own offensives on Congolese soil. Neither an official ceasefire between the six countries involved in the conflict in July 1999 nor the formation of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in November of the same year did much to slow the fighting, and the Second Congo War dragged on into the new millennium.
Blood Tantalum? - It was in this context that the Congo’s mining sector came back to life and the phenomenon of “conflict minerals” emerged. A close look at the entry of Congolese coltan into the global electronics supply chain is indicative of the broader patterns that shaped the trade. Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is an unrefined mixture of two metallic ores from which tantalum is extracted. Tantalum is an excellent conductor of electricity whose primary use is in the tiny capacitors that keep our increasingly miniaturized electronic devices running. Roughly a quarter of the tantalum ore mined in the first decade of the twenty-first century came from the Congo, but coltan itself is a phenomenon specific to the Congo. Most of it sits near surface level in forested areas (including two national parks designated world heritage sites by UNESCO) in and around North Kivu province, which borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Coltan is extracted both legally and illegally by mostly migrant “artisanal” miners who dig it out of the ground with picks, shovels, and their bare hands... read more: