Gold is a problematic conflict mineral in eastern DR Congo. Rebel forces and corrupt officials control the area, causing further destabilisation.
Although there has been progress in decriminalising mines for tin, tungsten and tantalum in eastern Congo – three other major conflict minerals – gold is increasingly a source of revenue for renegade government forces or other corrupt officials operating with impunity in the area, causing further destabilisation. These are splinter groups that in the last few years have occasionally controlled gold mines but were expelled by the government; along the way, armed militias like the Mai Mai also dipped into gold smuggling.
“Almost all gold produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo is extracted and smuggled out of the country without any legitimate checks and controls,” a recent UN report says.
In 2011, the Congolese government reported less than 11.5 kilograms of gold, worth $5 million, in exports. World Bank estimates said the amount was most likely 30 to 36 tonnes of gold each year, valued at $1.5 to $2 billion.
With a current value of $1,673.50 a troy ounce, jewellers and investors buy 80 percent of the gold, and the remaining 20 percent is for electronics, dentistry, and industrial purposes.
The UN has spent years trying to curb illegal gold trading. In 2010, a group of experts in the Security Council created due-diligence guidelines for trading and consuming minerals produced in eastern Congo, hoping to stem the violence there by shutting off financial sources to criminal gangs and armed militias. The guidelines were based on strategies designed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based group of developed nations. They were meant to help companies in supply-chain management to protect human rights and prevent the businesses from further contributing to conflicts and resulting humanitarian crises, like millions of displaced people and women and girls being raped.
Unfortunately the guidelines and sanctions have not reduced smuggling. Gold is easily moved out of the country. Smugglers can fit $30,000 worth of gold in their pockets and $700,000 in a suitcase without detection, most of it ending up in United Arab Emirates for processing. The Congolese government hasn’t regulated its export, no sanctions have been applied for not complying with UN guidelines.
“Insecurity at gold mines throughout the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo remains widespread,” a 2012 report from the UN group of experts on Congo said. The UN report says the notorious M23 armed militia, which seized Goma, the capital of North Kivu, last November but then backed off, uses gold to finance its operations.
Meanwhile, the UN has just arranged for 11 countries in central Africa, including Congo, to sign a peace agreement to help the country avoid more fighting and interference from its neighbours.
The UN also proposed a regional brigade to counter the many militias marauding throughout eastern Congo and seizing land. This “robust” brigade, as the UN refers to it, will consist of about 2,500 troops operating within the UN’s peacekeeping force in the region. The troops will use surveillance drones to track guerrillas in the dense Congolese foliage, the first time the UN Security Council authorised such equipment. The brigade should be operational this summer.
It remains to be seen whether these new plans will put Congo on sounder footing. A recent report from Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation, points to inadequate steps being taken to resolve Congo’s long bloodshed. The report says the problems include “disparities between the legislative, regulatory, and legal scaffolds hastily built to address Congo’s mineral disputes.” Many Congolese ministries and laws govern the gold trade, besides the due diligence and OECD standards imposed by the UN. With so many different regulations, industries comply with the guidelines inconsistently and erratically, particularly businesses from the South. Enforcement of sanctions is weak.
“In general, these sanctions are so tough that many countries, actors, and companies choose not to observe the guidelines and don’t follow the resolutions the Security Council is adopting,” said Enrico Carisch, author of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung report.
“An imbalance results. Those who follow the guidelines are penalized if the others don’t follow them.”
The report says Congo’s biggest trading partners, China and Zambia, are not members of the OECD and have neglected to follow due diligence guidelines. Of the estimated 30 to 36 tonnes of gold mined annually in Congo, five to seven are produced in the Kivu provinces.
Enough Project, a Washington non-profit group fighting genocide and crimes against humanity mainly in Africa, says that less than 5 percent of gold miners are registered with the government. It estimates that around 40 percent of miners are children under 15.
“They use children because a lot of this gold is mined in different ways,” said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst at Enough. “Some is down very deep shafts and the kids can get down these little holes.”
Enough is working on a three-tiered campaign to end the illegal gold trade in Congo. First, they want UN sanctions revised to target specific individuals who control important supply lines of the trade. Next, they hope to bring more responsible investors to the country to manage the gold mines more transparently, pushing out armed rebels and corrupt officials. One such business is the Canadian Banro, which already runs a small mine in the region. Finally, Enough wants to help the Congolese government regulate the trade for the hundreds of artisanal mines that are too small to interest foreign investors.
“The gold trade in eastern Congo is about as bad as it could be,” Lezhnev said. “The problem is that nothing happens, nothing is done.”