There is a narrow hole in the ground in Eastern Congo. It’s rough and hand dug, and looks like the burrow of an enormous snake. If you want to enter, you’ll need to move at a stoop or a crouch. You’ll need a headlamp, since the light doesn’t penetrate more than a few feet past the tunnel’s mouth. Further along you’ll find wooden beams shoring up the walls and ceiling, some of them spongy with fungus. Go deeper-much deeper, since some of these tunnels run a hundred yards underground-and you’ll find men. You’ll see their backs first, shirtless and heavily muscled from digging the tunnel by hand with spikes and shovels. Their eyes are hugely dilated from working and sleeping underground, sometimes for 48 hours. Injury and death literally hangs above them and in the air around them: broken limbs and crushed skulls from cave-ins, suffocations from poisonous gasses. Most miners are men, but some mines prefer to use children since they can work in smaller spaces. The miners use dynamite to blast open the rock face then search the rubble by hand for the minerals.
Tin. Tantalum. Tungsten. Gold.
The minerals used to make our game consoles. And cell phones. And computers. On their journey from the ground to our TV stands, these minerals fund ethnic bloodshed, slavery, sexual violence, and a war that has killed somewhere between 2.7 and 5.4 million people.
These are what have been dubbed “conflict minerals,” the biggest shadow export from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We hear about the game industry’s use of conflict minerals from time to time, but mostly in a broad sense that doesn’t provide much context to understand the problem or how the industry is making progress to address the issue. In this two-part series, Critical Intel will look at the problem of conflict minerals. Part one will explain the situation in detail, looking at how minerals come to our devices and how they help fuel war and instability. Part two will focus on possible solutions, and chart the progress individual companies in the game industry have made-or in the case of Nintendo, not made. But before we can talk about industry’s role, we need to define and explore the problem.
A History of Blood and Rubber
Western exploitation of the Congo began in 1885, when King Leopold II of Belgium owned the country through his company, the International Association of the Congo. Though nominally a humanitarian mission, in reality Leopold’s company was focused on extracting as much rubber from the country as possible via the use of slave labor. Belgian soldiers carried orders to shoot Congolese workers that didn’t make quota, then hack off the worker’s right hand to prove to their officers that they hadn’t wasted a bullet. The exploitation was so shameful, even by European colonial standards, that public pressure forced Leopold to give up his ownership of the country in 1908 and annex the Congo as a formal colony. Though the most extreme policies ended, the de facto apartheid and economic exploitation of the region continued until Congolese resistance movements forced independence in 1960.
Despite the Congo holding its first democratic election in an orderly manner, the new country suddenly found itself fragmented by one of the worst legacies of colonialism: European-drawn borders that lumped various ethnic and regional groups together irrespective of tradition, culture, or ethnic animosity. Worse still, the proliferation of competing political factions and the rushed government transition exacerbated factionalism exponentially. Within months, the Congo splintered as army rebellions, secessionist movements, military coups and ethnic violence tore the country apart. One of the main questions was which faction would control the Congo’s mines, since the mineral-rich Eastern provinces kept trying to secede. Things got crazier as foreign interventions and sponsorships increased-Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was arrested and executed during a CIA-backed coup after he requested Soviet aid to put down an insurrection, Belgian paratroopers ran hostage rescue ops to protect their citizens, and foreign mercenaries poured in from Europe and Africa. The UN sent their first armed peacekeeping mission, which soon found themselves in a shooting war. Even Che Guevara got involved, hoping to flip the country Marxist. When the Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, flew to the country to negotiate a ceasefire, his plane crashed for unknown reasons, killing everyone onboard.
The Congo Crisis ended in 1965 with a bloodless coup by the CIA-backed Congolese Army general Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, a dictator who plundered the Congo for personal gain, renamed it Zaire, and rather than paying the Army, told them to terrorize the populace for food and money. He was a repressive kleptocrat, but the U.S. government put up with him for more than thirty years because he supplied them with the cobalt necessary to produce fighter jets. Things deteriorated further during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when groups of both Hutus and Tutsis-including whole units of the Rwandan Army-fled across the border to Eastern Congo, taking both their guns and their ethnic hatreds with them. The strain was too much, and Mobutu was deposed in the First Congo War in favor of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who swept into office with military support from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Kabila suspended the constitution, renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was in office just long enough to prove he wasn’t much better than Mobutu before getting assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. His son, Joseph Kabila, who led units of child soldiers for his father during the First Congo War, succeeded him and has been reelected twice. The government of the DRC still battles armed bands and separatist movements to this day, especially in Eastern Congo where the Second Congo War never really ended.
The DRC’s history is a dizzying parade of coups, political infighting, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it governments, but one thing has always remained constant: In the DRC the path to power is through guns and control of the mineral wealth. Leopold had his rubber and ivory. Mobutu had his cobalt. Rebels financed their revolutionary activities with diamonds and minerals. The most powerful weapons in Congo are the AK-47 and the shovel.
Not long ago, the most desired minerals in the Congo were the infamous blood diamonds. But the world has changed since then, diamond smuggling is more difficult and less lucrative, and we in the first world have developed a new status symbol: gadgets. Computers, cell phones, gaming systems, anything electronic needs what the DRC mines can provide-and they can provide it cheap.
The conflict minerals most widely used in electronics are: tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. Tin is the main ingredient used to solder components to a circuit board. Small amounts of tungsten make your cell phone vibrate. Tantalum makes up most capacitors, the brown ibuprofen-looking nubs that store power in electronic devices, and it can also be used to improve acoustics in cell phones and TVs. Small amounts of gold make up the connections on circuit boards, as well as the ends of important connectors like HDMI cables. These are, largely, minerals we need to function in our computerized society. I’m typing this on a laptop that contains tin and tantalum. My iPhone sitting nearby includes both of those metals, as well as tungsten and gold. So how did they get here to my desk?
To find out I contacted Sasha Lezhnev, a Senior Analyst with the Enough Project, which monitors the use of conflict minerals and prepares an annual report on their use in the electronics industry. In 2009 he visited a Congolese gold mine. “It’s basically a six step process from the mine to the end product,” says Lezhnev. “The first stage is the mine itself, then it goes through an exporter in the Congo.” That sounds easy, but in the life of a miner it means hauling 110 pound sacks of ore down a dirt road with nothing but sweat and the crunch of compressed vertebrae. If they’re lucky, miners will have a chukudu, a rough-hewn wooden scooter used for transport and carrying heavy loads. Along the road, miners encounter the militia or Army unit that controls the mine, who levy an illegal tax on the ore before letting miners in to sell it at the ad hoc towns that develop around the mining sites. Local authorities take their cut too, along with any other armed group the miners encounter. In fact, miners might find their loads “taxed” fifteen or twenty times by the time they reach the mineral trading warehouses that buy the minerals and sell them onto the exporter. This means the miner-the one chipping at the earth with bronze-age tools-rarely makes enough to feed himself and his family.
Once the exporter takes over, he ships the minerals out of the country, often by air. In the conflict mines of Eastern Congo, shipment hub is the North Kivu province’s capital of Goma, on the shores of Lake Kivu. Soviet-era planes fly the minerals in and hand them off to middlemen who clean and process them for export. “Then it goes through a neighboring country. Usually Rwanda, in some cases Uganda,” says Lezhnev. “It’s either smuggled or goes through legitimate export.”
The middlemen in Rwanda and Uganda sell the minerals to smelting companies in East Asia via a minerals broker. Smelters in China, India, and Malaysia are the bottleneck of the minerals trade, since there are only about 150 of them worldwide (remember this point, it will be important next week). At this point, all of the ores and raw minerals-both legitimate and conflict-sourced-get mixed together and refined into metals. Coltan becomes tantalum. Tin ore becomes tin. Wolframite becomes tungsten. Gold gets melted into cheap jewelry in the cash-for-gold circuit or gold bars to send to banks or manufacturers. Component manufacturers in Japan and the U.S. then buy the refined tin, tantalum, and gold in order to make the solder, capacitors, and gold wire connections used to build our Xboxes and laptops.
This is the long, decentralized supply chain that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will eventually need to audit in order to verify their devices as conflict-free.
“Like Living in Hell”
If the process I described sounds simple and clean, it’s only because I wanted to explain it as plainly as possible. On every step of that journey, someone profits from an illegal tax, and the person profiting is usually the one holding a gun. According to a New York Times article from 2008, a rogue unit of the Congolese Army made $300,000 to $600,000 a month in illegal taxes from holding a tin mine, and may have made as much as $80 million a year. The money buys guns, political influence, and ultimately power. With such unimaginable sums of money to be had, most militias have abandoned their political aims to focus on exploiting the land and their laborers. Some mines operate as I’ve described them above: under the gaze of armed troops who extort money from the miners. Comparatively, these miners might be considered lucky if they have some money left to drink in one of the canvas tents that serve as bars, knocking back Johnny Walker that’s imported through the jungle on foot. Some might watch a movie in the camps’ makeshift theaters, which consist of old TVs showing bootleg French films or Kung Fu movies with the audio near drowned out by the generator running the set. Price gouging is normal and the towns are extortion machines controlled by the militias, the Mai Mai in local parlance. Miners don’t make any sort of a steady wage. There’s food and medicine though, if you can pay for it. No breaks. No compensation for injury. The worst safety conditions in the world.
Other mines operate off slave labor. A large number use children. “Up to 40% of the people working in mines are children as young as 8 years old,” says Lezhnev. Some come to work for the summer, hoping to earn enough for their school fees and then never leave. “The mine shafts are very small and go up to 100 yards deep into the earth and so they prefer to use children in them so they can climb in those tiny little spaces. There are people with AK-47 weapons hovering all over the mines abusing people right and left.”
Even living near a mine can be treacherous. Areas of mineral wealth are strategic ground for the Army as well as the militias, and the groups will frequently raid mines and engage in firefights around and inside villages surrounding the site. Between November 2010 and January 2011, for instance, a rogue Army unit attacked a number of villages, displacing 40,000 people. “I’ve met people who have been forced to flee the villages surrounding the mines several times in the previous couple of months,” says Lezhnev. “So it really just creates tremendous insecurity and instability on the ground.”
And then there’s the sexual violence. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the use of rape as a weapon of war by all sides in the Eastern Congo, but especially the Congolese Army. Rather than individual crimes, the sexual violence against Congo’s women is a deliberate tactic of subjugation intended to terrorize the population, and some cases fit the definition of crimes against humanity. In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund reported 15,996 new cases of rape in the country, many of children, though likely that number is low. Some cases involve militias or government troops kidnapping girls and using them as sex slaves for periods of up to a month, while others record incidents of genital mutilation by stabbing or gunshot.
Young men aren’t immune to the war either, since both the Army and militias frequently recruit child soldiers as young as ten. A UN report from 2011 claims that an influential Army Major “visited most of the secondary schools in and around Kitchanga in October and November 2010, forcing school administrators to provide lists of children who had previously been associated with armed groups.” In other words, kids with combat experience. The Major was apparently successful, since his force added 100 child soldiers during this period, though some fled or stopped attending school for fear of being recruited. He confronted other children at their homes.
“Basically the situation is that minerals are one of the chief drivers of the war in Eastern Congo,” concludes Lezhnev. “And what that means for people on the ground is really almost like living in hell.”
The Long Road to Clean Sources
Despite everything, our response to the crisis is improving. Public pressure is growing for electronics companies to go conflict-free, and with the Conflict Minerals section of the Dodd-Frank law coming into force in 2014, even the most obstinate manufacturers are beginning to come onboard. Next week we’ll talk about how Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo fared in Enough Project’s annual report, consider a number of ways to help mitigate the crisis, and see what we can learn from the action taken against blood diamonds during the Kimberley Process.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.