Mobile phones link to bloody Congo conflict
ONE hundred feet beneath the green slope of a steep hill in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a man lying flat on his front in a narrow tunnel chips at a rock face with a hammer and chisel.
After two hours, drenched in sweat, he tugs on a cord tied to his waist and is pulled back to the surface, carrying with him a 30kg sack of raw columbium-tantalite ore. Some mines use child labour, often for no pay at all.
Few people have heard of this rare mineral, known as coltan, even though millions of people in the developed world rely on it. But global demand for it, and a handful of other materials used in everything from mobile phones to soup tins, is keeping the armies of Congo's ceaseless wars fighting.
More than 80 per cent of the world's coltan is in Africa, and 80 per cent of that lies in territory controlled by Congo's various rebel groups, armed militias and its corrupt and underfunded national army.
Despite Friday's ceasefire summit in Nairobi and diplomatic visits to Congo by earnest international politicians and diplomats, there will be no peace until the economic forces driving the conflict are addressed, experts warn.In 2007, 428 metric tonnes of coltan, worth around €2.4m, was exported from North and South Kivu, according to the provincial ministry of mines. But these figures are notoriously inaccurate, and take no account of smuggled minerals.
There is nothing illegal in buying or using coltan, despite concerns that some of profits help fund Congo's many armed groups.
All of the big electronics manufacturers say that they make every effort to ensure that they use products are from legitimate mines. But it is impossible for customers to know for sure that the tantalum in their mobile phone, DVD player or desktop computer did not come from a rebel-held mine in Congo.
Buyers say that ore from these mines is mixed with that from legitimate mines. There is no equivalent of the Kimberley Process, the international system used to certify that diamonds are from conflict-free areas.
A 2003 United Nations investigation into the illegal exploitation of natural resources accused both Rwanda and Uganda of prolonging their armed incursions into Congo in order to continue their plunder.
Today, these groups earn their money either by directly controlling the region's mines, or by taxing lorries as they pass through their territories. Alongside them, Congo's own army runs various mines and its officers pocket the profits.