Electronics Fuel Congo Conflict The deadly conflict in eastern Congo is fueled in part by hunger for the region's minerals. The appetite for the coltan and cassiterite has boomed in recent years with the explosion of demand for cell phones and other electronic devices.
NPR logo

Electronics Fuel Congo Conflict

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98819209/98819191" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Electronics Fuel Congo Conflict

Electronics Fuel Congo Conflict

Electronics Fuel Congo Conflict

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98819209/98819191" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The deadly conflict in eastern Congo is fueled in part by hunger for the region's minerals. The appetite for the coltan and cassiterite has boomed in recent years with the explosion of demand for cell phones and other electronic devices.

ALEX COHEN, Host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, Host:

The latest involves the notorious Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army. Members of the group brutally murdered some 200 people there last week, mainly women and children. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in mineral wealth is disappearing from the country. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: This is a true story, by the way, and this is how millions of dollars worth of Congo's mineral wealth leave the country every month. Prosper Hamuli is a researcher for the Pole Institute, a think tank in the provincial capital of Goma. He has seen ore vanish from government records between the Goma airport and the border - a distance of less than two miles. So one day, he asked the government a French version of riddle me this.

PROSPER HAMULI: (Through translator) Between Goma Airport to the border, is there a phenomenon that makes minerals disappear?

THOMPKINS: Naturally speaking, the eastern provinces are about as rich as rich can be. There's also no shortage of cheap labor willing to scratch minerals out of the earth, but researchers say that more than 20 government agencies latch onto anything leaving the mines like ants at a picnic- exacting taxes, fees, and bribes worth up to 100 percent of the value of the ore being exported. Aloys Tegera co-wrote the Pole Institute's report on how mining traders work here. Speaking in his office during a driving rainstorm, he says the process is all wet.

ALOYS TEGERA: The whole bureaucracy is really amazing. You have an army of state services around them, each one wanting to take from them. In the end, these guys - you have to be tough to do it.

THOMPKINS: There's also a long chain of gun-wielding parasites for whom the mines are both the ends and the means to survival. The Congolese army, a Tutsi-led rebel force, Hutu fighters with ties to the genocide in Rwanda, and various other militias leech from the mines. They tax the poor diggers. They tax truck shipments at checkpoints. Sometimes they take over the whole operation. So if exporters want to stay in business, they've got to pay nearly everyone in sight to look the other way. Tegera says smuggling is more cost effective.

TEGERA: Really, when you start studying it deeply, what happens? You tend to be sympathetic to these guys.

THOMPKINS: But not everyone makes out in a war economy. In Goma at a drafty little warehouse owned by a company called MHI, white sacks line one side of the room. They're encasing what looks like dark gray sand with some shiny bits sparkling off the light. This is treated coltan ready for export. Dani Embomenza Mwangachuhu(ph) runs this place.

DANI EMBOMENZA MWANGACHUCHU: (Through translator) We think that if the war stops, and we begin then doing a good mining, we think that, in four years, we can have a good money.

THOMPKINS: I'm so sorry. I didn't realized it was that bad.

EMBOMENZA MWANGACHUCHU: (French spoken)

THOMPKINS: The funny thing is, people in North Kivu haven't always been so heavily dependent on mining. Cassiterite prices, for example, only began to boom about seven years ago. Before that, Aloys Tegera says the province's main exports were cattle, farm produce, and timber. He says people here have not only lost their peace of mind over minerals, they've lost their identity, too.

TEGERA: So we are not miners. We are farmers. This is what we are.

THOMPKINS: Transparency in mining may never happen, but experts say that Congo can't begin to have an honest trade until the war ends and worldwide demand for cheap smuggled minerals subsides. So in the meantime, North Kivu's multi-million-dollar magic trick continues. Now you see the ore; now you don't. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Goma.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.