DRC- Slaves of war and of minerals

Forced labour in eastern Congo is linked to the artisanal exploitation of minerals and to a continuing state of war. Two million people are directly involved: governments, NGOs, and churches raise the alarm.
drc2A Congolese fable tells that when God decided to distribute natural resources on the newly created Earth, he walked through the world carrying a bucket full of minerals. When he arrived to Congo, he accidentally tumbled, pouring out a good deal of the bucket’s contents. The land became rich in coltan, oil, copper, diamonds, gold, cassiterite, tungsten…
Potential wealth for today’s Congolese citizens doesn’t mean real prosperity and wellbeing. Estimates set the total value of Congo’s unexploited minerals at around £15 million ($23 million). This has brought war, human rights abuses, and widespread misery to North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema (in the eastern part of the country), not to mention the oft-forgotten Katanga, in the south-east.
In 2011, journalists of the British daily The Guardian discovered that 98 per cent of mines in South Kivu were controlled by “rebel militias relying on a system of forced labour that amounts to modern slavery.” Some miners told The Guardian that their wage was 33p (50 cents) a day – barely enough to survive. The victims of forced labour often belong to the most needy social categories. Among them one finds women kidnapped by armed groups and freed after their communities pay the ransom. They are then forced to work in the mines to repay the debt with the village. There are children too. According to a publication by the US Department of Labour, they are forced to “sift, clean, sort, and transport heavy loads, and dig underground.” They even spend consecutive days in the mine tunnels, where they eat, sleep, and drink. The children buy food and cigarettes from vendors, apparently careless of the intolerable heat and of the possibility of the rocky vault collapsing.
drc3A 2011 report by Free the slaves, the largest non-governmental organization dealing with this subject in the US, has shown that debt bondage worsens with the presence of vendors: “New workers – it states – have to borrow money to purchase food and the tools and equipment needed to keep them employed.” Extremely high interest rates are “engineered to make it impossible to pay off the debt.” Widespread illiteracy facilitates the fraud.
Debt is not the only means through which armed groups force people to work in the mines. Arresting people on no grounds is a way of gaining control and therefore exploiting them for labour. Adapted forms of colonial practices, such as the corvée (or compulsory work), are also used. According to Free the slaves, not only armed groups but – in some cases – even Congolese army units are involved in such practices.
Direct work in the mines is one of the many forms of slavery in the region. Sexual slavery (including prostitution and forced ‘marriages’ of young girls to guerrilla commanders) and child recruitment by the different factions (with tasks ranging from guarding the mines to building and selling goods) are closely linked to the artisanal exploitation of minerals. As the Free the slaves report points out, “Not all children associated with armed groups were recruited by force.” Almost half the children in the Walikale territory (a hub between North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema) explained, “The main reason we joined the armed group was that we weren’t being provided for at home and lacked another way to survive.”
drc4As rebel groups still seem to infest a great part of the region, little or no change is in view for the informal economy that pivots on the mines. An estimated 2 million people are involved in slave labour according to information collected in mid-2012 by the London-based NGO Minority Rights Group. They live – almost literally – on crumbs falling from a table laid out for banquet. Mines are vital, firstly, for the armed groups themselves. Monsignor Fridolin Ambongo-Besungu is bishop of Bokungu-Ikela and President of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Congolese Bishops’ Conference. Last year he said, “It is a vicious cycle. They make money through war. To make money they need weapons. To buy weapons they exploit natural resources.”
The use of unpaid (or extremely underpaid) labour makes this cruel business even more profitable. Those who control cassiterite (tin ore) mines sell it for about $4 a kilo. The same mineral, transported to Goma (the capital of North Kivu province) by porters and then by aeroplane is worth $6 a kilo. Once it is smuggled outside Congo its price rises to $10. According to various media reports and NGOs, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi are – or have been – directly or indirectly involved in this process along with international traffickers. It can then be ‘legally’ exported and refined abroad (for instance in countries such as drc5Malaysia). The final price of this commodity for the electronic industry is above $20 a kilo. This is just an example: gold and coltan (columbite-tantalite, from which niobium and tantalium are extracted) have a far higher market value, as one can easily imagine.
A comprehensive solution to the ‘new slavery question’ is no easy thing. It should involve various kinds of both state and non-state actors. International rules on minerals trade and traceability. Peace agreements among warring factions and states involved in the conflicts. Development projects in the whole area. These are all needed and, indeed, have been put in place in varying forms these years. The whole matter has proved to be even more difficult to solve than that of the ‘blood diamonds’ that played a role in Liberia and Sierra Leone’s civil wars. The conflict minerals from the DRC have an even greater market than diamonds. Not only do western companies play a big role in this trade, but also common people who buy everyday devices such as tablets, computers, and mobile phones. Information is a key issue in order to raise awareness about the fact that our lifestyle actually depends also on slave labour and on an ongoing armed conflict.
Davide Maggiore


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