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DR Congo: glimpses of hope in the plundering of natural resources?

Josep Maria Royo Aspa
Political scientist and researcher at the UAB School for a Culture of Peace (ECP)
Josep Maria Royo Aspa

Josep Maria Royo Aspa

The control and plundering of natural resources has contributed to the perpetuation of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a war that began in 1998 though it is rooted in the darknesses of Joseph Conrad when the Belgians began ravaging this part of the African continent. This business has involved the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), local and foreign armed groups, local companies, various neighbouring countries, and Western and Asian multinationals, according to reports from the United Nations in 2001.

It is the United Nations itself which at the time asserted that the exploitation was systematic and systemic and that the cartels had ramifications around the world. The organisation noted that many companies had participated in the war and had directly fostered it by exchanging weapons for natural resources, while others had facilitated access to financial resources to buy weapons. It added that bilateral and multilateral donors had adopted very different attitudes toward the governments involved. Nevertheless, the report only outlines a set of recommendations from the OECD on voluntary best practices.

It has been 11 years since the first study by the United Nations Group of Experts, and, although the situation on the ground is not as bad as it was then, given that the troops of neighbouring countries –in particular Uganda and Rwanda– have withdrawn from the DRC and they now maintain acceptable relations with their Congolese neighbour, practices of illegal plundering continue to follow the same patterns, as do the sexual violence and the forced displacement of the population as a result of confrontations. And the Congolese's hopes of having a legitimate democratic government also disappeared in November 2011. One must not forget that the situation in the DRC is complex, as there is a combination of tensions about land ownership, unresolved identity issues, regional power struggles, and the weakness and corruption of the state. Consequently, control of the plundering of natural resources will not put an end to the problems affecting the country, but it can stop fuelling the continuation of the conflict.

Although there has been some progress regarding the implementation of due diligence guidelines to ensure that supply chains do not sustain the exploitation of conflict minerals, the mining industry is far from applying them and few comptoirs1 in the east of the DRC and in neighbouring countries employ them. In November 2011, the Group of Experts evaluated the situation and concluded that between April and November 2011, most tin, tantalum and tungsten comptoirs had not had buyers for untagged minerals, except for the Chinese companies TTT Mining, Huaying and Donson International, which had bought the minerals without evidence of due diligence. The Group had evidence that these comptoirs had made purchases that had funded armed groups and criminal networks within the FARDC. These Chinese foreign trading companies took their minerals out through Rwanda, and they represent a considerable percentage of the buyers of cassiterite, wolframite, and coltan coming from the DRC. There is also a significant amount of smuggling. Rwanda is where most illegally exported resources are laundered and tagged following the relevant guidelines, according to the Group of Experts.

However, different measures are now starting to be implemented that may begin to help change the situation in the DRC and cut the flow of economic resources that contribute to the perpetuation of the Great Lakes Conflict. It is first important to highlight the lobbying campaign begun in 2007 by the North American organisation Enough Project, which, alongside three other organisations, helped develop the law presented by Congressman James Mc Dermott. The law received support from organisations and companies like Human Rights Watch and Hewlett Packard, but it never came to be. Subsequently, in July 2010, the US government implemented a financial reform bill in the context of the global economic crisis, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Section 1502 of this law stated that the US financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), had to apply a series of requirements on US companies to disclose the source of the minerals through due diligence. Nevertheless, the law has received a good deal of criticism both from the business sector, for the limitations it entails and the resources needed to audit the supply chain, and from local Congolese players and NGOs, because Section 1502 may represent the end to mining in the east of the DRC. And, indeed, in 2011 there was a decline in the mining industry which caused thousands of people to lose their jobs, coupled with the six-month ban established by the Congolese Ministry of Mines awaiting implementation of Section 1502. The UN Security Council also defined due diligence in resolution 1952 (2010). Later on, in December 2010, the OECD developed a number of recommendations and organised the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Lusaka. Germany has been supporting this regional initiative and has promoted a certification called Certified Trading Chains (CTC), which aims to establish standards of transparency and ethics in production. Even the industrial sector has made a move and has started a traceability scheme for cassiterite.

The Congolese government has joined these international initiatives by approving a directive in September 2011 that requires all mine operators in the country at all levels of the production chain to exercise the due diligence defined in Security Council resolution 1952 (2010) and in the guidance of the OECD. Owing to this international pressure, in May 2012 the Congolese government suspended two of the Chinese companies contained in the United Nations report from November 2011, Huaying and TTT Mining, for violating Congolese law and not reviewing the supply chain.

However, to ensure that these measures truly have an impact, local initiatives must be carried out to improve governability, and, at an international level, European and Asian companies must be subjected to the same regulations as US companies. As of yet, the EU has not made move to introduce regulations similar to Section 1502, despite the fact that the European market is one of the primary consumers of these minerals. And the consumers, the end users of many of the high-tech gadgets made from these natural resources, are still too unaware of this perverse dynamic that represents the continuation of a conflict that has killed thousands of people.

1. Mineral buying houses. (Back)