Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Resource Wealth Creates Conflict, Poverty 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Tuesday, November 6 / 12

Zack Gross

One would think that a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo would have punched its ticket to prosperity long ago, given its wealth of resources.

Rubber, timber, gold, tin, coltan (for use in cellphones and computers) — all of the natural wealth that it possesses — and yet the Congo has a centuries long history of slavery, exploitation, war, poverty and environmental destruction.

Today, Canadian mining companies are active in the DRC, mining for gold. While they assure us that, despite the difficult conditions, this extractive industry is creating training, jobs, infrastructure and a dignified, sustainable livelihood for local inhabitants, the other side is that resources have been the goal and the fuel of contending armies and political elites.

In many parts of the DRC, resource wealth has had no positive effect on the lives of ordinary people, but rather has made them pawns in war, destined to live at best in fear and poverty.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Congo was the site of heinous exploitation, initiated and led by King Leopold of Belgium, who treated the colony as his own private country, using harsh slave labour conditions to extract and gather to himself immense wealth.

He carried on a campaign front to convince potential detractors that he was helping to "civilize" the native population, not enslave them. His crimes were eloquently documented by the great author Joseph Conrad in his unforgettable novel, Heart of Darkness.

Much of the mining taking place today in the DRC is small-scale, by families and communities.

People live in poverty and mine by hand in dangerous conditions, where a cave-in can happen at any moment. Forty per cent of the work is done by child labour, some as young as eight years old, far outside the guidelines of the UN’s International Labour Organization, which sets out what work young people should not be allowed to do.

Work in the poorest "developing countries" is often characterized as "3D" — dirty, difficult and dangerous.

As the mining, refining and sale of minerals, particularly in relation to cellphone components, finances ongoing war, European and North American organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, have been trying to tighten guidelines by having companies register that they are operating in a war zone and track the origins of the minerals.

Some companies have conceded that they cannot guarantee how "clean" their products and many have pulled out of the DRC rather than deal with the situation. They are now sourcing these minerals in Australia and Canada. However, two U.S. companies have taken the step of reinventing their supply chain to ensure that their coltan is "conflict free," something that is easier done when dealing in small amounts. The challenge is how you track your supply chain when you scale your operation up.

The effect of several companies pulling out has been a drop in prices and greater poverty in the area.

As the coltan situation changes, critics have turned their attention to the gold mining sector. Half of the DRC’s gold harvest still comes from conflict zone smuggling as opposed to more legitimate operations.

The Enough Project is a campaign run by the Centre for American Progress, a program dedicated to ending crimes against humanity particularly in East and Central Africa. Just a few days ago, in a published report entitled From Child Miner to Jewelry Store, the group reported that gold smuggled from the eastern Congo’s war zone is ending up in jewelry stores and banks around the world.

As prices for some Congolese minerals drop, gold continues to rise and $600 million worth is now being smuggled out annually by armed groups from Congo and its neighbours, such as Rwanda. It is a six-step process: mines are operated by warlords in eastern Congo; Congolese smugglers work with armed groups; regional smugglers are located in Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania; the gold arrives to be refined in Dubai; then on to banks in Switzerland; and finally arrives to jewelers in the U.S., India and China.

Profit and fear drive this process. If Congolese communities refuse to participate, they face armed attack and mass rape.

Coincidentally, I remember that my first awareness of global issues took place when the Congo achieved its national independence in the 1960s. The news was filled with words and images of a country in conflict, with contending political groups vying for international support and ultimately the CIA and other outside forces skewing the process in an effort to head off, at least in their own minds, the rise of communism in that resource-rich and ever-suffering part of Africa. Some things change, but unfortunately some things don’t.

Our role is to ask our jewelers, technology providers and others if they know the origins of the products they sell. Some do today make it clear that they do not trade in conflict minerals, while others say that they don’t know.

It is up to us to hold them to account.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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