On a late May 2004 evening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fighting erupted near the cushy hotel where Canadian rock band Sum 41 was staying. Bullets flew through windows and a bomb exploded close by, shaking the entire building. People dove as mirrors came crashing down and items fixed to the wall fell to the ground. “People were crying and everyone’s hugging each other—basically saying goodbye,” lead singer Deryck Whibley said.
Luckily, the band was able to safely evacuate to the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters on the other side of town—unlike the millions of Congolese that have already died in a war fueled by the profits of a mineral, coltan, a valuable resource that is used in many popular American electronics from cell phones and laptops to pagers and iPods. The mineral is sold to fund a larger conflict that involves at least four countries and a convoluted web of tribal, racial, and economic alliances.
The UN has imposed sanctions, but their effects remain unclear. For the time being, however, the Congolese people remain defenseless against what the DR Congo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leonard She Okitnudndu, described to the UN as “assassinations of civilians, deportations, torture, rape, and deliberate spreading of HIV/AIDS.”
The war traces back to 1994 when ethnic Hutus in Rwanda killed 800,000 Tutsis and uncooperative Hutus in 100 days. The massacre ended when exiled Tutsis in Uganda drove the murderous Hutus into the Congo, which was known as Zaire until 1996. When Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko sympathized with the killers, a Rwandan rebellion fearful of the group’s violence overthrew him.
The Rwandans put guerilla leader Laurent Kabila in Seko’s place. However, the plan backfired when Kabila re-armed the Hutus. The Rwandans then tried to overthrow him as well with the help of Uganda and Burundi. Kabila was almost toppled until he received help from five nations, specifically Angola and Zimbabwe, who had interests in the Congo’s resources. At the same time, since the Congolese government was not doing an effective job keeping out rebels, Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola entered the country and set up bases in the Congo’s forests.
Soon, when the war reached a stalemate, armies began to turn their focus to looting. Zimbabwe took diamonds in the south while Angola tapped into the nation’s oil supply. Rwanda and Uganda, however, tried a more unconventional route. They started mining a mineral called columbite-tantalite, or “coltan,” a rare metal ore abundant in eastern parts of the DR Congo used in many popular electronic devices, especially cell phones.
“In eastern parts of the country the profits are going to groups that are largely associated with the Hutus who left Rwanda after 1994,” said University at Buffalo political science professor Claude Welch.
Rebel armies mine the substance by scraping off the surface mud in streams, then swishing the water around a basin. The coltan settles to the bottom, where the mining team typically extracts one kilo of coltan per day. It is then refined into tantalum, a conductive, heat-resistant powder vital in creating capacitors—electronic components that store charge. According to thestandard.com, the United States is the biggest consumer of tantalum in the world, accounting for 40 percent of the global demand.
Many cell phone owners are unaware of any crisis. “Even though we all have cell phones, we don’t care,” senior psychology major Sara Paur said.
“It is difficult to avoid people digging coltan and other minerals in the DR Congo since exploiting minerals is not prohibited in the country,” said Dominique Bikaba, who has worked in the Congo for 13 years and is an eyewitness to the atrocities that take place there. “The Congolese government should make a percentage on the minerals’ exploitation fees to the Nature Conservation Department to support conservation activities as well as monitored by the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN).”
The revenue could be going to the needy within the country. According to the Center for International Disaster Information, 37 percent of the Congolese population is without medical services, 47 percent is without safe drinking water, and 50 million citizens eat less than two-thirds the needed caloric intake each day.
According to a report by the UN Security Council, the Rwandan army made $250 million from coltan deposits in 18 months—even though Rwanda does not have coltan deposits. Uganda and Burundi are also thought to be illegally smuggling coltan out of the Congo to sell in Belgium.
“It is so difficult to access real statistics because diggers were coming from Rwanda in airplanes to the mineral areas in Congolese forests. They were digging minerals under the control of Rwandan military officers installed in the eastern part of the DR Congo. Thousands of kilos of coltan were carried from the Congolese forest to Rwanda, without being registered by the Minerals department in the Province,” Bikaba added. She saw many rebels store excess minerals, since the market price fluctuates and rebels want to sell when the price is high.
“It’s upsetting,” said freshman business major Rachel Stover. “It’s similar to how drugs support terrorism; it seems to provoke mindless killing.”
Selling coltan is not illegal, but the several coltan mining companies in the Congo have been forced out of business, which means peasants now do most of the mining. According to UN reports, the immense profitability of the practice has led to over 10,000 miners moving into mining sites, stripping jungles and polluting waters along the way. The average Congolese miner makes $10 to $50 a week, as opposed to other Congolese workers who average only $10 each month. “It’s our way of making a living,” explained one intermediary who travels the country buying and selling coltan when he spoke to BBC News in 2001. “There’s nothing else to do here.” This could be a huge dilemma if coltan runs out or the demand diminishes, because miners who have lost their farming skills will be without livelihood.
According to the Global Policy Forum (GPF), a watchdog organization that monitors UN policymaking, tracing coltan is extremely difficult, partly because the substance exchanges between illegal rebel operations to legitimate mining businesses several times before reaching international trade companies. Consequently, the companies are unsure about how to approach the problem. Although numerous companies such as Motorola and Nokia have publicly rejected the use of coltan from anywhere in Central Africa, many do not seem to be following through on their promises. In 2001, a spokesman for Nokia stated, “We first heard about this in April and immediately asked our suppliers if they used tantalum from the Congo. All you can do is ask, and if they say no, we believe it.”
The GPF also reported that although the UN Security Council was asked “to impose financial sanctions against companies and individuals who plunder the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wealth,” it is near impossible to enact the request when coltan’s origins are questionable.
“I think this is just another example of how money in the United States comes before rights and humanitarian causes,” sophomore psychology and English major Jessy Minney said.
Researchers at globalissues.org estimated that 30 percent of schoolchildren in the northeastern region of the DR Congo have abandoned school to search for coltan, which is especially troublesome when the Congo’s government only provides schooling for half its children in the first place. A UN report revealed that although some are lured in by the high profit business, many are recruited and forced into the practice by rebel soldiers. To make the children overcome their fear and repulsion of dead and maimed bodies, it is not uncommon for commanders to send the children in a training camp and force them to kill. Girls are repeatedly raped and sexually abused. Women sell themselves into prostitution, for miners are quick to buy a “rainforest wife” to keep them company while they are away from their real wives.
“Kids and women have been pushed into service, sometimes as porters and sometimes as protectors of troops by marching in front of them,” Professor Welch said.
“Many teenagers abandoned schools to be digging coltan, as they wished to become rich quickly,” said Bikaba. “Young girls were involved in prostitution and many wives abandoned their households to do prostitution and get money.” According to Bikaba, HIV/AIDS and drug use have also become widespread in mining areas.
Not only is coltan mining harmful to human societies, but the routine has a detrimental effect on gorilla populations in the Congo as well. “During the wars, the park rangers lost their weapons and the park was out of control of the Congolese wildlife authority,” said Bikaba. “Many persons around the park gathered guns from failed troops of the late Seko, which were used to hunt animals in the park.”
Even actor Leonardo DiCaprio has become an advocate for gorilla conservation, giving his name to a website attempting to save gorillas. He has appeared on posters and television in Europe asking the world to protest the sale of “blood coltan.”
Consumers can make a difference. Welch advised students to “lobby the companies, get in touch with an organization, and stay very active.” In a market economy, it is possible for a large public outcry to bring about progressive reforms, said Welch.
Since their eye-opening trip to the DR Congo in 2004, Sum 41 has released the song “We’re All To Blame,” influenced not only by the Western reliance on coltan but also the modern world’s tendency to exploit others for power, wealth, and resources.
Sum 41 continues to raise awareness for the ongoing war in Congo and hopes to spread the word about product awareness. They have become an inspiration in the eyes of many for making responsible purchasing decisions.
“The irony of the whole story is that we went to the Congo to shoot a documentary on the subject of war,” said lead singer Whibley, “and in the end we became the subject of war.”