Congo's coltan rush

The discovery of the mineral coltan—essential for mobile phones—in a remote region of Congo has been a mixed blessing
December 22, 2007

The police chief of Kisengo, Katayo Katambo, glances sideways at a line of passing ragtag soldiers. They are a dishevelled lot, some in the uniform of the recently birthed Congolese army, some in jeans and filthy sleeveless shirts, but all bearing heavy arms. The last one, looking no older than 16, swings a mounted, belt-fed machine gun around his shoulders, peering lazily in our direction.

Surrounded by nervous men in his office, a soggy, thatched hut, Katambo looks at his deputy, whispering in Swahili, "Which are those? Are they the ones that came from Kongolo?" Then he remembers our presence and smiles, straightening in his chair. In impeccable French he assures us, "Things are very safe here! We are here to maintain your security at all times." Katambo was sent by the Congolese police to maintain order in Kisengo because the soldiers were getting out of hand. He has only six officers. They cower when the soldiers pass.

The soldiers have come to Kisengo, in southeastern DR Congo, because coltan—an inky-black mineral used to make capacitors for mobile phones—was discovered in its riverbeds. According to the indigenous Pygmy population, the coltan was discovered in March by one of their own, a man called Kalegelege, who used the hard black stone to sharpen his tools. But news travels fast in Congolese villages. The son of Kisengo's chief stole the stone and took it to Kalemie, the nearest large town, where it was confirmed as coltan. Kalegelege was forced to show where he found the stone, and the coltan rush began. The Pygmies are crying foul because they have been denied access to the mine. The situation is a testament to the riches at stake and the enduring position of the Batwa—as the Pygmies are known—as the untermensch of Congo's many tribes.

Within a few months of the discovery, Kisengo had become a straw city of 20,000. It hums with the confidence of money, but has a transitory feel, as if its inhabitants know that their black lifeblood may run dry at any time. The thud of digging echoes from the riverbed. Hurriedly constructed wood and grass shacks line the roads, one called "Avenue Force," another "Don't Lose Hope Street." Huts house miners and families, bars, restaurants, boutiques, even hairdressers. New, expensive sportswear and designer labels hang for sale outside straw huts—miners in the town are well dressed when off duty. Where in the rest of the Congo, fresh meat is hard to come by, whole sides of freshly killed goat hang on the main street in Kisengo. A Coca-Cola in Kisengo costs $2, a Primus beer $4. A perfectly coiffed woman in a brightly flowered dress shrugs when we complain about the prices. "C'est ça la mine," she says.

80 per cent of known world cobalt supplies are found in the sandy riverbeds of eastern Congo, often in seams that also carry gold and amethyst. Coltan comes out of the ground in hard black granules; lucky miners turn up large rocks of the stuff. A kilo sells for $12 at the entrance to the mine, $15 to the traders in Kisengo and $20 in Kalemie. The world market price currently hovers at around $100.

Peace has only just arrived in eastern Congo after a decade of civil war, which flared and endured largely because of the possibility of access to precious minerals such as coltan, diamonds and gold. Some, including many Congolese, call them a curse. For Kisengo, coltan has been a mixed blessing. Though coltan played a role in fuelling the war, it's now essential to Congo's postwar economy. Miners at Kisengo can make more in a day than soldiers can in a month. Yet the mine was officially closed in mid-August because it was attracting too many soldiers and, as a result, insecurity.

The police chief sends us across town, where we meet with the "chief of the mines," Mr Kabezya, and six of his cronies. He is open about the problems facing his town. "The biggest security problem is the soldiers," he says. "We don't need them here. What reason is there for a military detachment? They bring nothing but trouble." At 6am on the morning of our arrival, navy and infantry troops fired at each other in the street. "It was something over a woman," says Kabezya.

The troops fight because although the mine is officially closed, production has not stopped. It continues under the supervision of the volatile military. Kabezya estimates there are up to 200 soldiers in Kisengo now, compared to around 120 before the closure.

In a creamy stretch of the riverbed, perhaps 40 men are at work, three or four tucked into each gaping hole. One man stands out against the backdrop of mud-soaked workers, in pressed jeans, clean shirt and military boots. "That is the commander that runs this part of the mine," our guide whispers, looking at the ground. The commander is polite to us, but more interested in how long it will take a particular group to clear their hole. "What he's doing is illegal," says our guide. "But he's got no one to answer to. He's protected."

The various military factions allow workers access to "their" mines on condition that they split the spoils in half. But they don't always let the miners keep their half. "If you have a particularly good day, they'll come with guns and find you in the evening," says a miner called Shaaban, grinning calf-deep in milky water. "Before all the good spots were exhausted, I used to make $100 or $200 a day. Now I only find about $25 worth a day, and half of that I have to give to the military." Still, even this reduced haul is a good day's work in Congo.

Yet being robbed is not the greatest risk for local miners. A second town sprang up next to Kisengo soon after the initial rush, swiftly christened Antiochia. Lack of infrastructure and a burgeoning population soon wrought havoc. In early October, cholera broke out; 95 people died in the first few days and the town emptied. The road between Antiochia and Kisengo is now lined with graves, topped with handmade wooden crosses. Antiochia was burned shortly afterwards, and is now a graveyard of thousands of stick-framed huts. Plastic bags blow through empty houses.

Many tried to flee Antiochia for Kisengo. Always ready to turn a profit in a crisis, authorities erected a barrier on the road into Kisengo, taxing people fleeing the epidemic: $20 for a car, $5 a motorcycle or $1 a head. "It was a disgrace," says Kabezya. Yet despite his attitude towards the behaviour of the soldiers and town officials, the "chief of the mine" is less than sympathetic to the pleading of our travelling partner, Georges Mbuyu Kunaha, who runs an NGO campaigning for Pygmy rights. Pygmies living in settlements on the road to Kisengo reported that Kabezya had forbidden them from mining. Georges has come to Kisengo to ask questions.

"It is our custom," Kabezya says, his voice rising. Local populations believe that if a pygmy or a woman enters the mine, the coltan will disappear. "I had no need to issue an official order. The miners don't want them there. Batwa can run transport, they can do construction, we will buy their sticks. But they cannot mine." Georges reminds Kabezya that the Congolese government recently ratified the UN convention on the rights of indigenous peoples. "Congolese national law supersedes any cultural tradition," he says. But Kabezya replies, "Pygmies are simply below the rest of us. If I am your older brother, and you become more rich and powerful than me, will you still respect me? Of course not. They need to be kept in their place."

Farming is the principal economic activity of the local peasants. But Pygmies are often denied the right to farm for themselves, and must work long hours for the Bantu tribes for one or two cups of cassava flour a day. The inaccessible coltan would offer richer rewards.

According to the chief's representatives and advisers, it is the Kalanga tribe, not the Pygmies, that are indigenous to Kisengo. Their version of the discovery of coltan is somewhat different: a Kalanga farmer found a chunk of the mineral during the war. He was told by the occupying Hutu interahamwe (a remnant militia from Rwanda's genocide and Congo's wars) that it was a worthless rock so as to keep rebels from descending on the area. After the departure of the interahamwe, the farmer took the coltan to Lubumbashi, mining capital of Congo. Dealers there confirmed coltan, sending prospectors to Kisengo earlier this year.

We tried to find Kalegelege, the man the Pygmies say found the first coltan stone. Instead we found his cousin, who said, "We haven't seen him for several months. He was afraid that he would be killed because he had found the coltan. After he showed them where, they chased him away from Kisengo. Now he has gone back to the bush. It may be better for him there."