Foreign Correspondence

In the east of the DRC, a war is financed by blood minerals

Congolese people are angry at the plundering of their country for cobalt and coltan 

January 30, 2024
A gold miner excavating a mining shaft near Iga Barriere in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image: Guy Oliver / Alamy
A gold miner excavating a mining shaft near Iga Barriere in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image: Guy Oliver / Alamy

I’m reporting from Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I live. In Congo, people are on the frontline of the green transition: much of the world’s cobalt and coltan is mined here, vital components of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are themselves a key part of developed nations’ plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Here people are also on the frontline of a war.

For more than 20 years, the exploitation of these minerals in the east of my country has fuelled one of the continent’s longest-running conflicts. It has led to the deaths of millions of people and countless human rights violations, in areas that are often difficult to access due to frequent rainfall and dirt roads that have been made dangerous by the war.

In March 2022, the M23 rebel group, which is alleged to be supported by Rwanda, resumed fighting with the Congolese army—almost 10 years after M23 was first defeated in 2013. Last year, a period of particularly intense violence came on top of more than two decades of violence of all kinds—including sexual violence. In less than two years, according to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the conflict has forced more than a million civilians to flee their homes in Northern Kivu, a province with many coltan mines. Many of them have found refuge on the outskirts of towns like Goma, creating vast camps of tents cobbled together with whatever resources were at hand. 

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In this decades-long conflict, rebel groups constantly wrestle for control of the mines. “In the context of insecurity in the region, mining exploitation has been developed around artisanal miners, known as ‘creuseurs’,” explains Roger-Claude Liwanga, a Congolese researcher and professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta, United States. Artisanal miners use basic tools to extract minerals from the earth. “The armed groups active in the region quickly realised the potential of this situation and took control of the mines. This was all it took for them to buy the arms they needed and to enrich their leaders,” Liwanga tells me.

Artisanal miners use basic tools to extract minerals from the earth

Civil society in DRC and lawmakers across the world have made efforts to try to tackle the exploitation of “blood” minerals which continues to finance this endless war. In the United States, the 2010 Dodd Frank Act requires companies listed on the stock exchange US stock exchange which use minerals to prove that they don’t come from conflict zones. Parts of the act were passed in response to atrocities committed in the east of the DRC. Minerals are certified through the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI, an industry membership body that assists companies with their due diligence).

“These new requirements have prompted miners to organise themselves into cooperatives, which have structured themselves to meet the requirements of the certification process,” explains Roger Rugwiza, who works for two mining cooperatives in Rubaya, Masisi territory, 50km west of Goma. Rugwiza ensures that the mine’s operations comply with the requirements of the ITSCI label and anticipates any changes that could jeopardise the precious certification.

Here, in vast deforested areas, miners follow one another from hill to hill to dig new shafts. Rugwiza, who was a miner for a long time before rising through the ranks of the cooperative, thinks that the difficult working conditions of the men who walk the extraction sites every day with their shovels and pickaxes have eased since the legislation came into place. “The adoption of international rules to regulate mining has led to a number of improvements in the lives of artisanal miners. They have been informed of their rights, and this has led to a reduction in ‘tracasseries’, taxes illegally collected by state agents, a very concrete expression of the corruption that plagues the country.” Rugwiza tells me. (DRC was ranked 166th in the world terms of corruption by Transparency International in 2022). “Some have also set up solidarity funds to provide a minimum level of health cover, or to lay out roads to transport their produce to the trading centres.”

In this decades-long conflict, rebel groups constantly wrestle for control of the mines

However armed groups still have very real strength: M23 has once again occupied several areas of the region, as have other groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the local Maï-Maï militias. In those regions in the hands of warlords, there is no question of asking for better working conditions, even less of asking for the application of rules, whether Congolese or international. The state can’t apply legislation in areas where it cannot impose its authority, says Liwanga. And armed groups that exploit the sites don’t feel bound by international texts.”

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Discerning which materials fund armed groups is also difficult: mines are often located next to each other, and minerals from rebel-held mines are often mixed with duly certified stocks. “Clean minerals are thus ‘contaminated’ by blood minerals’,” Liwanga saysIn 2022, a report by the NGO Global Witness singled out the ITSCI certification mechanism, accusing it of “facilitating the laundering of minerals from mines controlled by militias or produced using child labour.” The report alleges that “the certification mechanism, which many international companies trust to source responsibly, is also used to launder smuggled or trafficked minerals.”

“This was already a reality in the past, with a border made up of rural areas and lake that were easy to cross discreetly. It’s even easier now that the M23 occupies a vast area adjacent to the border,” says Alexis Muhima of the civil society observatory for peace minerals (OSCMP), a local organisation that advocates transparency, accountability and best practice in the mining sector. “It is essential to extend strict control of the value chain to the DRC’s neighbouring countries. That’s the only way we can be sure that the products bearing the label really come from the sites indicated and are not illegal imports from the DRC.” Last March, Congolese finance minister Nicolas Kazadi estimated that the country was losing $1bn dollars a year as a result of these illegal exports (out of a budget of $16bn dollars for 2023). 

This trafficking provokes anger among the Congolese people, many of whom denounce the plundering of their country. “International rules governing the purchase of minerals from conflict zones allow buyers to clear their consciences, but they are not enough to put an end to blood minerals,” adds Muhima. “We will only put an end to this exploitation and its consequences for the population if we adopt a region-wide approach that takes account of the problem of illegal exports of Congolese minerals via neighbouring countries.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Northern Kivu contained many cobalt and coltan mines. Cobalt is more extracted in the south of the country. The piece has been updated to reflect this.