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.