Can You Hear Me Now? The Violence of Eastern Congo Is Calling

by on August 26, 2012 · 17 comments

in Activism, Editor's Picks, Politics

by L.A. Moore

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Ten thousand miles away, a small woman weeps into her delicate hands whispering the horrors she faces: Her husband was killed when he tended their crops. The rebels killed her son who tried to hide their money. The soldiers raped her.  She has no home and no way to feed her children.

In this video from The Guardian UK, her voice comes across the miles from somewhere in Eastern Congo, where she and others pound mineral grit that will make a cell phone ring.

The grit from gold, coltan, tin and tungsten is used in the manufacture of electronic devices.  The cellphone in your pocket or the iPad in your hands connect you directly to this horrific conflict.

Remember that film Hotel Rwanda, which brought the horrors of Africa violence into the mainstream American consciousness? Eastern Congo seems like Rwanda all over again. Who could forget exiting the theatre overhearing the same blithering comments: “Someone should have done something; all those people slaughtered ….”

Similar violence is taking place in Eastern Congo, and little to nothing is being done to stop it.

Before more bodies pile up, it’s important to understand how the United States and electronic devices are connected to the conflict.  The Congolese suffer torture and death in the regions mining coltan and other minerals needed for these devices.

Cellphone purchases fund this conflict.

Connect the dots

Every Apple iPhone (and a host of other electronic devices) use coltan, a combination of columbite and tantalite.  Non-corrosive, coltan has superconductivity and, when combined with carbon and graphite, becomes very hard making it ideal for use in electronics.  Coltan along with gold, tin and carbonite abound in mineral-rich Eastern Congo.

Picture the Congolese miner as if he sits behind every keypad and every screen. Somewhere near the equator, this forced laborer digs in the hillside near where raped and kidnapped women pound minerals into grit for export to Asian manufacturing plants. Their starving children watch as the fields their families tilled, lie fallow and are overrun with renegade militias.

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The miner digs with his hands or a simple rod and skims a bit of grit from his small sack to pay off thugs in uniforms. He also pays the roadblock manned by Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) soldiers who haven’t seen a paycheck in months or, perhaps, the M-23 deserters from the DRC troops who stop him on his way to turn in the ore for payment.

For all of his work, the miner earns about 50 cents a day.  The Chinese and eventually Apple, Microsoft and all the other manufacturers take the rest—the grit and the massive profits.

The conflict minerals have turned the Kivu regions into a Blood Diamonds sequel, where the old ways of making a living—farming and cattle raising—are now impossible.  Villages are rampaged and burned.  Men are killed; women, along with girls, are raped and forced into prostitution by an alphabet soup of rebel militias.  The boys are trained to be killers to feed this militia machine.

Some flee to refugee camps to face starvation and danger. The roads and fields are littered with the dead. Those who end up in the mines become feudal slaves, and failure to cooperate to pay “taxes” or bribes may end in torture or death.

Disease follows violence.  Doctors and aid groups can’t or won’t reach people in this conflict torn region.

Where is the Congo anyway?

The remoteness and the world’s ignorance of the escalating situation there have made Eastern Congo a sinkhole for its neighbors’ conflicts, including Rwanda and Uganda.

The Democratic Republic of Congo or as some say, “not democratic and not a republic,” is the second largest nation in Africa in area―930,000 square miles and has a population of 73 million.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world.

White men arrived first as slavers.  Then, they came as explorers like Henry “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” Stanley, who searched for the source of the 2,914 mile Congo River in 1871.  His discovery, and the colonization by Belgium’s King Leopold II that followed, kicked off exploitation so horrific it could only be called the rape of the Congo.

Approximately 10 million people, 50% of the population, died during the Leopold’s ownership of Congo territory, according to the Genocide Studies Center at Yale.  Natives whose rubber quotas fell short were killed or had their hands cut off, sometimes both.

Enter Edmund Morel, a shipping clerk who kept logs of exports to the docks of Antwerp, thousands of miles away. The ships from Congo came in full of a wealth of ivory and rubber. The same ships left the docks filled with chains, guns and explosives.  There was no trade. Morel concluded, correctly, this could only happen through slavery.

Morel gave a voice to the people through his Congo Reform Association. He was unrelenting, until an aging and ill Leopold backed off and ceded his private territory to the Belgium state, but kept a cool $1.1 billion in today’s dollars.  A fascinating account of this history is King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.

After sixty more years of colonial rule, Belgium granted independence to Congo in 1960.  Independence created more opportunities for exploitation through land grabs, power grabs, military and police corruption, and exploitation of labor.

Today, Kony and his Ugandan guerrillas (the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA) hide there. The Hutu armies flee from the Rwandan government, disappear into the rough terrain and support themselves with coltan cash. The Rwandan Tutsis pursue the Rwandans across the useless border, killing anyone in the way.  The M-23 deserters are here, too, and now even the Mai-Mai―armed villagers―have joined the fray.

The United Nations peacekeeping force of 17,000 troops fights a losing battle to protect the Congolese citizens in a territory much too vast for their numbers to control.

Leopold’s legacy of exploitation set the example for leaders who followed him in Congo.  The “kleptocracy” continues.

What does my cell phone have to do with this?

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Cash from mineral extortion buys weapons. Congo has a small percentage of the world’s coltan reserves. However, Congo has a high percentage of the world’s extracted minerals, trillions in export wealth. Militias, who extort in exchange for false security, use the funds to purchase weapons, enrich themselves and sustain their violent rampage on the region.

The buyers of these minerals export them to countries like China, where they are used to manufacture your cell phone and other computer devices.  The chain of events from the mines to your pocket is only a few links.

Supply-chain control—it’s complicated

Minerals free of militia “taxes” are hard to come by.  Tagging the bags and tracking the supply chain is a start. In 2010, the US Congress passed Dodd-Frank. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted rules this week requiring firms listed on the US Stock markets to disclose the use of conflict minerals in manufacturing.

Global Witness, a watchdog group, asked the British Government to freeze the assets of Amalgamated Metals Corporation’s (AMC) mineral processing operations. AMC’s Thaisarco division did what any self-respecting business would do:  they stopped buying minerals in the Congo.

The end result from AMC was more violence when tin sales in Eastern Congo shrunk by half.   Militias, hungry for their shrinking cut, extended their terror to extort kidnap ransoms from whole villages. The worry is the same will happen with US firms now that the regulations are in place.

Bagging, tagging and monitoring the supply chain of conflict-free minerals is being tested in a pilot by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Without computers and trained staff, the recordkeeping is flawed and corrupted.  It remains a challenge—one worth fighting.  Apple, along with other electronics companies, could offer expertise and fund this effort.  Some things can’t be delegated.

Can you hear me now?

A ten-year old boy sobs when he remembers his brother’s death.  He watched his brother be massacred with a machete by the LRA militia. It was a recruiting lesson to a group of boys that would be killed if they failed to kill as ordered.  The cash from minerals in cell phones supply the LRA with weapons.

Every time a cell phone rings, get angry and don’t forget.

Require electronic device manufacturers to use only conflict free minerals in

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their production.  Apple Investor Relations Office writes:

“We require that our suppliers only use materials that have been procured through a conflict-free process and from sources that adhere to our standards of human rights and environmental protection.”

Apple uses third party auditors to make sure the smelters which process coltan, use conflict-free materials and subscribe to supply chain monitoring to assure the militias don’t get a take. Send them an email and ask how they audit their suppliers.

Last but not least

Find inspiration in Edmund Morel.  Remember the shipping clerk who brought down a king?

Raise awareness.  Tell everyone you know, and don’t let anyone off the hook―the President, Hilary Clinton, Congress, the United Nations and electronics companies.

Pay attention to what the US electronics business does with the new SEC regulations. Business opinion seems to be the regulations will hurt the DRC because legitimate players will pull out and the black market will take over.  Responsible players, like Apple, need stay with suppliers from the DRC and require them to reform their businesses.

Buy stock in the good guys; sell shares in the bad guys.  Raise Hope for Congo has ranked the companies and their efforts:

Arms control of conventional weapons must be implemented.  Follow whether the US supports the Arms Trade Treaty currently pending in the United Nations. The US has held it up because it has questions.

Political stability matters, but legitimate government matters more.

Accountability, election monitoring, and the will to back it up, are essential. The government’s role in retention of export wealth to serve all the Congolese could be a game changer as it has been elsewhere in the third world.

Look for Eastern Congo news stories, support organizations with feet on the ground, and write letters.

The cries of a woman in North Kivu, Congo, will not come on a cell phone.  She and her daughter were raped, her husband murdered, and her son kidnapped to be a killing machine.  She has no place to live.  Every day she works as a slave for the people who did this to her.

Help her―before they make the next movie.

L.A. Moore holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Santa Barbara. She travels extensively–6 continents and 80+ countries–and is now interested in areas in conflict and transition.  She has worked to support African refugees through the San Diego International Rescue Committee, and is currently completing a novel set in the Congo. The research for this article is part of that project.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar J.A. Bernstein August 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Thank you L.A. Moore for bringing this to your attention and making this horrible situation more understandable. Awareness and action are the first steps in improving this tragedy in the Congo.

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avatar C. N. Gordon August 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Informative piece. I especially appreciate the information on what we, as consumers, can do to make a difference. Since I’m pretty much having an affair with my iPhone, it’s good for me to step outside of my own interests and consider how my purchases impact others in a global economy.

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avatar LA Moore August 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I hear you –Got the same addition to my phone. I don’t think we have to choose between our beloved devices and a non-violent fair way to make them. We need the electronics companies to step up and lead the way.

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avatar LA Moore August 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Thanks for reading and commenting. All of us have a responsibility to take this beyond awareness to support actions which will stop the killing!

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avatar N Hirt August 26, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Wow, this is great to know. I had no idea. Don’t you wonder how the world can be so cruel? Thanks for giving this the attention it deserves.

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avatar LA Moore August 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

I am glad you found it informative. The road ahead is tough and will require the electronics manufacturers to stay in the game, spend some of their profits to stablize the situation and help improve the business. If they all pull out it will become much worse.

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avatar M. Ames August 27, 2012 at 2:06 am

Thanks for opening my eyes to the relationship between the demand for conflict minerals and the horrors occurring in Congo. Also for providing practical steps that consumers can take to break the cycle of violence. Could you explain in more detail what the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 has to do with the SEC rulemaking requiring exchange listed firms to disclose their use of conflict materials? Did the Act mandate the rules? If so, why did it take two years for the rules to be adopted?

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avatar L.A. Moore August 27, 2012 at 10:02 am

Thanks for the comment. When Dodd-Frank was passed to create certain reforms in the financial markets, a provision (Section 1502) for disclosing use of conflict minerals was part of the legislation. The electronics industry and US Chamber of Commerce fought the adoption of rules which had a deadline of April 15,2011. The Chamber wanted the rules to show benefits to investors from the expenses due diligence would cost. After convening meetings of all the interested groups, the SEC adopted rules last week, August 22,2012. There is a link in the piece to the SEC published rules under Supply Chain. Global Witness links to their thorough and informative publication called “Coming Clean” (May 2012) that provides a complete analysis of the supply chain issues. Global Witness also challenges the EU to step up with rules of their own.

It didn’t take long for the Congo to respond. Congoplanet.com is covering the story of the SEC rules, and there is already an ad for a consulting service to help business satisfy the new rules.

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avatar Gina Caruso August 27, 2012 at 8:24 am

Wow…I really had no idea about this whole situation! It is really so sad to think how obsessed Americans are with their cell phones while people are suffering just for us to be using a privileged piece of technology. Thank you so much for opening our eyes to this situation! I really enjoyed reading this article even though the situation is so disturbing!

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avatar L.A. Moore August 27, 2012 at 10:07 am

Thanks for the comment recognizing the suffering that happens in Eastern Congo. I also don’t know how I could live without my cell phone. It seems we have some options to keep our devices and speak up for the safety and protection of the people in this region. It will require the electronics companies to use their leverage with the mineral suppliers to require them to protect their workers, pay them a decent wage and use some of their profits to create policies which will push the militias out of business.

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avatar K. Lavine August 28, 2012 at 7:43 am

A very sensitive and informative report on a desperate situation many of us were unaware of. Thank you for your investigation and for bringing this conflict to our attention. A great article.

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avatar L.A. Moore August 28, 2012 at 9:06 am

Thanks. I hope you will pass it on to bring more attention to the crisis.

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avatar L.A. Moore August 28, 2012 at 9:07 am

A reader sent in this link related to the regulations OECD has had in place. The link includes comments by Hilary Clinton and on the new SEC rules.

http://www.oecd.org/fr/daf/investissementinternational/principesdirecteurspourlesentreprisesmultinationales/mining.htm

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avatar Lugano August 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Thank you Linda for the article, is absolutely crazy that situation and may be we have to get, as consumers , the decision to stop that violence cicle.

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avatar L.A. Moore August 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Thanks Lugano. Spread the word around Uruguay and to all your friends in South America.

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avatar susan mcclellan August 30, 2012 at 10:36 am

Linda–Thank you for bringing global awareness to this terrible condition. You’ve opened my eyes about this. Looking forward to your novel.
Susan

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avatar L.A. Moore August 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Thanks Susan. I appreciate your support.

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