Nov 27, 2008

World - Battle for Congo's mineral assets

Alka Marwaha

The Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to recover from a lengthy civil war in which an estimated three million people have died, mostly through starvation and disease.
Since the country gained independence in 1960, its vast mineral wealth has been a key factor in the country's civil wars and instability.

It has huge reserves of gold, cobalt, tantalite and cassiterite all used in the manufacture of consumer electronics.

Illegal trade

“Since this war stared in 1998, we have seen all the main warring parties, the various rebel groups as well as the Congolese security forces involved in widespread plundering and looting of minerals”, said Carina Tertsakian from lobby group Global Witness on BBC World Service’s Digital Planet programme.

Making components made from these raw minerals raises many ethical issues for consumers and manufacturers she believes.
“As consumers, we don’t have any way of knowing exactly where it is coming from,” said Carina Tertsakian from Global Witness.

“I think the first thing is for the buyers and the companies - at every step of the supply chain, to find out who exactly is producing these minerals and how," she said.

“If there is a likelihood that they are being produced by armed groups and it’s not that difficult to find out, then they should refuse to buy those products.

“Obviously companies are in it for the money, so it is not always easy to prevail upon their good conscience, so for that reason, Global Witness is also calling upon governments to hold these companies to account.

“If there’s evidence to believe that they have been contributing to the finances of these armed groups, then perhaps even to prosecute,” she added.

Tantalum is used in the production of capacitors, tiny components which store and release electrical energy.

“These capacitors are found in lots of electronic appliances, computers, mobile phones and things like air bag systems, pacemakers and GPS," said Emma Wickens from the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre.

While the main supply of the world's tantalum comes from Australia, where the largest producer operates two mines, it is also widely available in Africa.

“Tantalum raw materials occur in many regions other than DR Congo and Rwanda - such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique,” said Ms Wickens.

“We estimate that material from the Congo accounts for a few percent of the current world supply,” she added.

Not all capacitors are made from tantalum and electronic devices are also getting smaller, which means it is using less of the mineral.

“It is true that the size of capacitors is decreasing but there is a lot of worldwide consumption of such electronic appliances,” said Ms Wickens.

Cassiterite, the principle ore used to make tin, is also mined in the DRC and sells for a high price on the international market.

In 2003, tin was sold on the London Metal Exchange for around $5,000 per tonne, now it sells for $12,000.

Tin is used to make solder, a major constituent in today's gadgets.

Tracking ore

Many ideas have been touted to try and identify where mineral components have been sourced.

In March this year, DRC Deputy Mines Minister Victor Kasongo said the government hoped to set up a scheme to certify columbite-tantalite produced within its borders by 2009.

Research on fingerprinting tantalum is currently being carried out by the Federal Institute for Geosciences in Hannover Germany.

“The principle is somewhat inspired by the Kimberley process put in place for diamonds," said Ms Wickens.

“It is really making use of scientific techniques to track the tantalum ore back to its deposit.”

Consumer pressure

“The very first thing that we can do as consumers is, if we are buying a mobile phone or a computer, we can ask the retailer where the various components coming from,” said Ms Tertsakian.

“Consumers could also write to some of the bigger multi-national companies.

“The more longer term technical measures, such as certification and fingerprinting could be useful but they take a long time to set up,” she added.

"In the meantime, the war in Congo is raging and thousands of people displaced from their homes are being raped and killed.

"If buying the right electronics could stop this from getting worse, try and find out where what you buy has come from," added Ms Tertsakian.

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