MANY of the rebel groups still fighting across swathes of the Democratic Republic of Congo get their cash from rocks. Apart from gold, they illicitly sell cassiterite (used in laptops), coltan (mobile phones) and wolframite (light bulbs). Hundreds of the mines containing such treasures, especially in the country’s troubled east, where conflict has long been fiercest, are targets in turf warfare. Reducing the illicit trade will not bring peace, but it may help.
New legislation passed by America’s Congress is intended to curb the black market and boost the legal one. Companies that report to the American Securities and Exchange Commission now have to reveal whether they buy minerals from Congo or from any of its nine neighbours and, if so, from where. New regulations likely to be proposed by the State Department next year may follow guidelines being drafted by the UN and the OECD, a rich-country club, that will advise companies on how best to trace the origin of their materials.
The entire trade in Congolese minerals needs cleaning up. As much as 80% of them may be smuggled out. The export of illicit gold alone is reckoned to be worth $1.2 billion a year, almost none of it accruing to Congo’s treasury; the Congolese army and the former rebels who have been accommodated within it still levy their own informal taxes. Many international companies that get their supplies from Congo directly or indirectly pay the army or rogue soldiers for them. Unable to guarantee that the minerals they acquire are untainted by conflict, some have stopped buying from Congo altogether. Others buy goods in neighbouring countries where traders have smuggled them in from Congo and have arranged dodgy paperwork to make the deals look legal. But checking the origin of most minerals on sale in Goma or Bukavu, big border towns in eastern Congo, is virtually impossible.
Some smelters, mostly based in Asia, as well as manufacturers such as Apple and Nokia, are sponsoring a pilot scheme to trace the ore coming out of two particular mines to prove they can regulate the trade. Each sack of ore is tagged with a label and has attached paperwork that can be checked at every transit point on its way from the mine to the end-user, though the scheme will need independent oversight to work. Some companies worry that the new American law will force them to stop buying any minerals from Congo. Under another plan, backed by the UN and Congo’s government, state officials will be stationed at five mineral-buying centres near mines where there is no military presence to check the provenance of the products. But armed groups may still be able to get contraband minerals into these centres.
Moreover, the Congolese army is driving rebel groups closer to mining areas that have hitherto been considered fairly clean, such as the Maniema province and North Kivu’s Bisie mine, which provides most of the country’s cassiterite. As with the Kimberley Process, which is meant to keep conflict diamonds out of the world’s legal market, people will seek ways around the new law. But it is worth a try.