Editorial: “Conflict mineral” only the tip of the iceberg in DR Congo conflict

In recent decades, the world has become increasingly interconnected not only through the trade of goods across borders, but also the migrations of people, technologies and ideas.

Today, billions of people own cell phones, from teenagers in rich industrialized countries to farmers in rural Africa. In fact, the mobile phone has become so commonplace that we don’t think twice about what we hold in our hands or where it comes from. In response, some movements have emerged to urge consumers to buy local and develop an understanding of where their food, clothing and other goods originate.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are coltan reserves, a mineral which is found in almost all electronics. Mass media has sensationalized the use of coltan in such manufactured goods, reporting that industries buying the mineral are funding violence in the DRC, where civil wars have been ongoing since 1996.

Polinares, a European project researching the effects of conflict on peace and economic development, released a report in 2013 entitled Coltan, Congo, and Conflict, addressing concerns about common misconceptions of coltan and violence in the DRC.

Initiatives seeking to limit the revenues of armed rebel groups assume that mineral revenues from trading coltan are responsible for continued fighting in the DRC. In response, Polinares argues that little convincing evidence exists suggesting these initiatives will significantly reduce violence in the region.

In reality, the underlying causes of conflict are much more complex, and unless these risks for conflict are addressed and resolved, rebels will simply shift from trading minerals to other sources of revenue.

History of the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an incredibly diverse country in central Africa with more than 200 distinct ethnic groups. Since its independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960, the DRC has suffered repeated outbreaks of violence and lingering conflict between numerous parties, from the national army to various ethnic groups and neighbouring countries.


Image courtesy of: USAID 

The most recent conflicts include the First Congo War (1996-97), ignited by the cross-border impact of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the Second Congo War (1998-2003), considered the deadliest war in modern African history.

What’s causing such staggering amounts violence?

According to Polinares, there are many contributing factors, not the least of which was the 32-year dictatorial reign of Joseph Mobutu, a leader more concerned with personal gain rather than his country’s welfare. Associated with his rule are the degradation of infrastructure, an increasingly incapable government, and persisting absence of national cohesion. Together, these factors have rendered the DRC a “failed state”.

What is coltan?

Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan derives most of its value by the percentage of tantalum contained in it. Because the mineral is light and durable, electronics producers extensively use it in products such as cell phones, computers, and automotive electronics.


Piece of coltan ore. Courtesy of: www.creativecommons.org

In Africa, the DRC is the largest producer of coltan, with 14 mining sites in the North Kivu province and nine in the South Kivu in the east. While some assert that the DRC accounts for 60% of the world’s production of coltan, the reality is much closer to 8%, meaning the DRC is nowhere near the top global producer.

The real impact of coltan on violence in the DRC

With the DRC’s complicated history of violence, explaining the role of coltan is similarly complex. The media and initiatives seeking to stop the purchasing of coltan from the DRC believe the mineral to be a key motivator of armed groups to fight in the region, characterizing it as a conflict mineral.

In reality, the relationship between coltan and the conflict isn’t so straightforward.

Statistical analyses indicate that some mineral resources may lengthen pre-existing wars, suggesting that coltan and other minerals may be responsible for prolonging recent conflicts in the Congo.

But while an abundance of natural resources, like coltan, may be an additional factor that increases the likelihood of conflict, it is by no means the only driver of violence.

According to Polinares, many factors that substantially increase the risk of civil war or violence are present in the DRC. These include a large territory, ethnic diversity and declining living standards. Another factor relevant to the DRC is conflict in neighbouring countries, which includes the civil war and genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Angola.

It seems, then, that unless these structural and political causes are appropriately confronted, conflict will persist, and lobbying for the end of purchasing coltan from conflict regions is just the tip of the iceberg of a very large, very complex issue.

Poignant chamber work to pay homage to Holocaust survivors

Songs of the Wasteland  is an epic musical work –creation of Vancouver-based musician and teacher, Renia Perel–anda presentation of the Vancouver Academy of Music (VAM), falling on the eve of the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26.   A chamber ensemble of VAM faculty and leading Vancouver musicians will perform the piece to share a true story of survival and pay tribute to the millions killed and lost during the genocide.

The story of Perel is one of  relenting hope and courage. Born in Poland in 1929, Perel and her older sister Henia started their journey in Southern  Poland in 1941, it was the last time they saw their mother at the train station and  eventually arrived in Canada in 1948 from Germany. The sisters were  the only survivors in their family — both parents and young brother were killed, as well as other relatives.

The Nazi genocide included the mass murder of 6 million Jews and an additional 5 million non-Jews.

‘My music is my way of sharing my painful memories with the world. I hope that by sharing these memories with you, together we will find a way to heal the wounds of yesterday and bring hope for a better tomorrow,’  Perel has said about her work.

Perel’s opus made its debut at the Chan Centre in 2010. Four years later, she approached noted cellist and VAM’s executive director, Joseph Elworthy to bring the piece to the stage again. Vancouver-native Elworthy was already familiar with the piece and some of the cast, and had harboured the desire to perform it live.

‘Then by sheer coincidence Renia Perel approached me and said she had a long-standing record of working with community and arts groups throughout Vancouver, (…) and it became clear that the point of collaboration was definitely Songs of the Wasteland — a very important piece of music,’ Elworthy said over the phone.

After a meticulous  preparation, Elworthy explains things fell into place scheduling the concert –just before the UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan 28). Elworthy, who played the cello for the  Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for 12 years, will also play in this performance.

The chamber work includes seven musicians: VAM faculty members Elworthy (cello), Robyn Driedger-Klassen (soprano), and the concertmaster at the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Mark Ferris (Music Direction and violin), and  Mark Fenster (baritone), Francois Houle (clarinet), Lani Krantz (harp), and Kozue Matsumoto (koto).

Songs of the Wasteland is a song cycle divided into two sections. The first From Tragedy to Triumph, ‘In terms of thematic direction is about remembrance and pain for those who lost their lives in concentration camps’. Elworthy explained. ‘Musically is somber in mood and character.’

It opens with Psalm 23: Verse 4 ‘Yea tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”. The piece draws on  elements of musical and linguistic     fragments of pre-WWII European Jewish culture.

Towards the second part  ‘Survival’, a metamorphosis takes places, turning into a more personal theme, entitled ‘Songs of Life’.

‘We got from talking about the Holocaust –which is a universal subject to something that is incredibly  personal –that is Renia’s account of her love for her late husband’.

The koto, a Japanese traditional stringed instrument, is also present in the second part. It symbolizes the gratitude to the Japanese Consul Chiune Shuguhara, who helped to rescue  thousands of Jewish people during WWII.   Boris III, Bulgarian Tsar, who  prevented the deportation and killing of  48,000 Bulgarian Jews, is also honoured.

The piece concludes with ‘Jerusalem’ that represents salvation and hope and ‘a desire for peace.’

The soprano and baritone sing mostly separately –the baritone plays the role of the cantor in a synagogue, infusing  religious overtones. Meanwhile,  the soprano’s songs are more secular in nature — they are about ‘the emotional reality of the Holocaust and, then later on , the experiences of (Perel’s)  love for her husband Morris (Perel)’.

Elworthy points out that this piece is not only important for its profound and historical content, but as well serves the VAM’s to attain its mandate — to promote ‘the importance of music in form of the examined life and the enrichment of life’ amongst its 1,400 students.

‘We believe that productions such as Songs of the Wasteland will bring credibility to our belief that our own personal lives can be transformed through music.’


On the other hand,  Elworthy describes  the staging as  minimalist and austere. A large screen will accompany the cast with scrolling names of Holocaust victims, part of the Vancouver Holocaust Memorial.

Along with the vocalists, six teenaged candle bearers –three girls and three boys — will stand on the wings on the stage symbolizing next generation’s hope, leadership and power.

In addition to the night show on January 26 (Koerner Recital Hall at the VAM,  7:30 pm)  the VAM will offer a performance earlier same  day for high school students.

For more information visit:



UBC students launch new project to support Ethiopian girls’ education

The 7dayringproject is a brand new local initiative dedicated to promoting girls’ education, founded and run by two third-year UBC students in the Sauder School of Business, Taylor Davis and Peony Au.

The inspiration for the project came from Davis’ trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after her first year where she helped host business workshops for local entrepreneurs with UBC’s Arc Initiative. It was here that she met Salem Kassahun.

Kassahun owns Salem’s Designs, creating and selling beautiful handcrafted Ethiopian jewellery, textiles, and gifts in Addis. What inspired Davis and Au to work with her is that in addition to being a strong businesswoman, Kassahun also seeks to benefit her community with every business decision she makes.

From empowering her employees through training and fair wages to sponsoring the schooling and education of children in the community, she does her part to fight Addis’ overwhelming poverty and leave the world in a better place.

Image courtesy of the 7dayringproject

Noticing the “7 day ring” in Kassahun’s shop one day, Davis learned it represents the seven days of the week and serves as a reminder that we have two choices every day: to make the most of it or let it pass us by.

After buying a ring for herself, Davis says she “fell in love with the personal reminder to seize everyday.”

An initiative is born

In the spirit of social entrepreneurship, Davis and Au teamed up to bring the 7dayring to Canada. With their combined specializations in human resources, marketing, and accounting and their a mutual passion for “doing good” with business, the 7dayringproject was born!

The process is simple: the project purchases Kassahun’s rings from Ethiopia, sells them in Canada, covers its distribution and operation costs, and donates the proceeds to the Girl Fund of Imagine1Day, an organization in Ethiopia dedicated to gender equity and girls’ education.

[vimeo 147983359 w=500 h=281]

THE7DAYRINGPROJECT from Nano Clow on Vimeo.

With so many issues involving poverty that need addressing, I asked Davis and Au why they chose the cause of girls’ education to support. Davis took the lead, recalling Kassahun’s sponsorship of a young girl named Kiddist, a daughter of an employee. In their community, Kiddist had little opportunity to attend a strong educational program. Noticing her potential, Kassahun sponsored Kiddist’s schooling.

Now, Kiddist is the top of her class, in the top four in Addis and is set to receive a full-ride university scholarship. “We want to create more success stories like Kiddist’s and to foster the next generation of female leaders, like Salem!”

It’s very clear that Davis and Au have high hopes for the 7dayringproject and a passion to push the initiative as far as it will go.

Davis explains, “the heart of the project really goes back to the fundamental purpose of the Arc Initiative – to use your skills and education to have a positive impact.”  Jumping in, Au says the initiative feeds her drive to empower people to find their potential.

With Christmas just around the corner, the 7dayring is the perfect gift for the do-gooder in your life who’s passionate about making a difference in an ethical way. Because the project buys the rings straight from Ethiopia through Kassahun, it aids in injecting money back into the Ethiopian economy, allowing Kassahun to continue helping her community.

The ring not only represents the importance of seizing every day, but each purchase also supports girls in Ethiopia to do the same thing by making education a reality for them.

Click here to visit the 7dayringproject’s website, learn more about their story and business model, and purchase a ring or two!

Why initiatives like the 7dayringproject matter

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of commitments that aim to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change. Two specific goals of the SDGs are the deliverance of quality education and gender equality.

In development work, it’s well known that empowering women and girls is key to breaking the cyclical nature of poverty, and to empower is to educate. Due to harmful gender stereotypes, poverty, and early pregnancies and marriage, many girls and young women don’t complete their educations.

According to UNESCO statistics, 31 of 57 million children not in primary school are girls while 493 million of the world’s illiterate population are women.

Just how important is girls’ education and how much does it really contribute to fighting poverty? UN Women notes that improved education accounts for 50% of economic growth in OECD countries, a group of wealthy Western nations, in the last fifty years. Half of that growth statistic is a result of more women in higher education.

For developing countries, ensuring girls are able to obtain and complete primary and secondary educations will be a difficult task, as they must also deal with other dimensions of poverty, such as health, to render education effective.

In spite of this, the value of ensuring girls’ educations is no less important. In a PR statement, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova confidently states, “We know increasing the education of adolescent girls and young women carries impact across generations. We know education is the best cure against transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child. We know it is the best way to avert child marriage. We know if all women completed primary education, we could reduce by 70 per cent the number of women dying in childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa – saving over 100,000 lives every year.”


Myths you still believe about transgenderism

This has been the year of transgender education – with Caitlyn Jenner opening up the conversation, “transgender” isn’t a taboo or unheard of topic any longer. In previous years various people in media had tried to bring the subject to life including Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Chaz Bono just to name a few.

Even though discussion has increased, there are still some common myths many people still believe about what it means to be transgender. Below we try to debunk some of these commonly believed myths.

Myth #1: People who identify as transgender have a hormonal imbalance

Skeptics throughout the years have argued that people can’t truly be transgender – it must be unbalanced hormones! Scientist took on the task to study the link between possible hormonal imbalances and transgender identity.

Earlier this year a study involving 101 transgender individuals between the ages of 12 and 14, showed their sex hormone levels were consistent with their assigned gender at birth.

“We’ve now put to rest the residual belief that transgender experience is a result of a hormone imbalance … it’s not,” said Johanna Olson in a statement, medical director at the Center for Transyouth Health at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Researchers in 1995 studied a region of the brain called the stria terminalis – a part of the brain known for sex and anxiety responses – MTF (male to female) transgender individuals had an average female-sized one while FTMs (female to male) had a region average to a male. Individuals who had undergone hormonal reversal for a variety of medical reasons after starting hormone therapy, retained the size that corresponded to their gender identity. No link was found between these findings and sexual orientation.

Myth #2: Medical intervention doesn’t necessarily lead to psychological improvement

Image courtesy of: freerangestock.com

Over 25 studies looking at cross-hormonal therapy, puberty suppressing therapy and sex re-assignment surgery have all found to have positive psychological impacts on transgender patients. Individuals who receive treatment are not only mentally better off than those who don’t, but they aren’t significantly any different in day-to-day functioning compared to the general population.

Myth #3: All transgender people want to transition

Image courtesy of: freerangestock.com

Not all people who identify as transgender want to start hormone therapy or have sex re-assignment surgery. Some transgender people will choose to go through hormone therapy but not have any surgeries, while others will have certain surgeries and choose to not take hormones. Every individual’s definition of transitioning is different and each person has a different experience regarding their body and transitioning.

This is why it was better to be a kid back in the old days! Or was it? (VIDEO)

A new video has surface online explaining “juvenoia” – the belief that during each generation children were better off in the previous one.

The video was uploaded by the popular YouTube channel Vsauce, a brand created by YouTube personality Michael Stevens.

In the video Steven explains Sociologist David Finkelhorn was the first to coin the term “juvenoia,” – meaning an “exaggerated fear” about what influences children nowadays. A fear according to Finkelhorn, exists in every generation.

This can be seen in an article published by the Sunday Magazine in 1871 regarding the dying out of letter writing, “we fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.”

Can we say the same for smart phones today?

Stevens explains a series of examples through different generations all which can be seen on the website xkxd.com.

Watch the video and decide for yourself. Is technology and other factors of our time negatively affecting kids these days?