“Don’t just shock us. Make us understand.”
— Jason Stearns, Congo watcher
So you want to see the minerals!”
Edouard Mwangachuchu, senator, Democratic Republic of the Congo, quickly advances toward a cargo trailer situated high on a verdant emerald hilltop in Masisi Territory.
It is a glorious day.
Masisi, in the Congolese province of North Kivu, is lush and agriculturally rich, rising in terraced steps more visually fitting the postcard pastures of today’s Rwanda, or possibly the rice plateaus of Vietnam, than the Congo, which often — too often — seems a desiccated and wretched place.
In Masisi the sweet peas are white, the lupines are purple, and the senator, in his straw hat and pink golf shirt, looks the part of the weekend farmer, which he is, crowing that he produces the finest Gouda cheese in all the Congo.
The senator is also a mine operator of a modestly mechanized operation, and on this day he is in an expansive mood.
The lock on the cargo trailer is surprisingly slight, given the riches stored inside.
The air in the trailer is thick and still. Humped at the back are sacks of minerals — not tin, not gold, but coltan. One of the workers nimbly unties an ore bag and retrieves a handful of the heavy black mineral, which settles into his palm not as rough nuggets, but as smooth and inky rocks amid damp granules of sand.
It’s a curiosity. Modern society is so deeply immersed in digital culture — game consoles, DVD players, cellphones — yet the name “coltan” elicits quizzical looks. The mineral is composed of two elements, columbite and tantalite, and you can thank the Belgians, apparently, for this neologism that hadn’t, until the crisis in the Congo, gained common currency.
It is the latter metal, tantalite — ductile, corrosion-resistant, heat-resistant — that has trumped aluminum in the manufacture of such critical electronic components as capacitors, which store a device’s electronic charge.
Top-grade tantalum powders have played an essential role in creating ever smaller capacitors, which in turn allow for smaller electronics, a design advance that helps explain why today’s cellphones are a fraction of the size of the “mobile” hardware hoisted by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street.
Tantalite is one of the “Ts” in the group of “3TG conflict minerals” named in recent American legislation, along with tin, tungsten and gold. The Dodd-Frank act, which came into effect three months ago, is designed to sever the connection between the illicit exploitation of minerals by armed groups in the eastern Congo, the trafficking of arms and sexual and gender-based violence.
To that end, the extraction and export of the 3TGs has fallen under the due diligence provisions of section 1502 of the act. The act compels the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to put into effect regulations requiring companies to disclose minerals sourced from the DRC or an adjoining country, and the measures taken to oversee the chain of custody of those minerals. By contrast, Canada’s approach to these conflict minerals — and, more broadly, corporate social responsibility — has been dispiritingly flaccid. NDP MP Paul Dewar says he will be pushing the issue with a retabling of his private member’s bill on conflict minerals in September. Maybe, he thinks, something will happen then.
The rich vista of Masisi demands a more romantic set-up than that. Tantalum. From Tantalus, the son of Zeus, he who robbed the gods of their ambrosia. How Tantalus was made to suffer for his sins! Water to slake his thirst flowed teasingly close, then ebbed away too quickly. Luscious fruit hung, pendulous and full, before it swayed just out of reach.
The surrounding highlands beckon. Today they are adorned with beans and cassava and grazing lands for cows. Might they be fat with the rich, black mineral too?
Now there’s a term that needs pumping up. The Congo, and especially the eastern provinces, has suffered horrific tragedies. Deaths in the millions. The systematic rape of women. Forced labour, child labour, child soldiers. The economy collapsed long ago. The country is an open wound.
Still, the senator argues that the extraterritorial reach of Dodd-Frank has resulted in the shunning of minerals from the region before systems have been put in place to certify them as conflict-free. The result has been to strip the region of trade in the interim, a devastating outcome for the creuseurs, or artisanal miners. “It’s not the time to ban us,” the senator pleads. “It’s the time to help us.”
The senator declines to descend the steep path to the excavation site below. Thomas Tchomba is the senator’s head geologist, and he’s happy to scramble down the hillside. The site’s diggers have been temporarily redeployed to the task of benching a cliff recently hit by a mudslide that has unleashed an avalanche of loamy, chocolate-brown soil. At midday the workers appear to deploy little energy toward this effort. A small crew of handymen toils at repairing a sluice box. There is no water being rushed through the sluice, no minerals being extracted.
“There are thousands of tonnes of coltan,” says Tchomba, his eyes sweeping the senator’s mining concessions, though, truly, no one knows the full potential of the site.
In September, Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, issued an edict prohibiting the extraction of minerals from North and South Kivu and the adjacent province of Maniema. “Before the ban we were retrieving up to five or six tonnes a month,” Tchomba laments. The ban was lifted in March. “Now we have export problems.”
The electronics industry has turned its back on the Congo.
In the Kivus, coltan was known to be present in the so-called Sominki mining concessions. Société Minière du Kivu was a Belgian-Zairian creation of the Seventies, holding Belgian legacy assets that went back to the days of King Leopold II. In 1995, 35 years after independence, Belgian shareholders sold their majority interest in Sominki amid growing instability in the country, and much of the area was turned over to grazing lands.
This is Mwangachuchu’s history, growing up in Masisi in a family that made its way by farming. “I remember my parents had a Chevrolet Buick,” he says excitedly, reminiscing about the good days, or at least what for him were better days, in the 1960s. “After that” — and here he slaps his hands like a door slamming shut — “we never had those cars again.”
It’s quite a story, and one the senator had earlier told at length over dinner at a pleasant restaurant in the provincial capital of Goma. He appeared to be the only Congolese in the joint, which was stuffed with young workers from the Red Cross enjoying a meal by candlelight. Goma is swarming with NGOs. The crisis has made for plentiful work, not so much for the impoverished Congolese, but for aid workers. “Where does the money go?” the senator wondered, his eyes working like lasers across the room. “Millions of dollars have been raised. What has been the impact?”
In 1994 Mwangachuchu was finance director for the province of North Kivu. Two years later, during the Rwandan-backed invasion of the east, he moved to the U.S. as a refugee.
Goma was upended. “Starting what was to prove a seven-month looting and raping retreat across the country, Zairian forces had lashed out indiscriminately before pulling out, heaving corpses scattered for kilometres,” wrote British journalist Michela Wrong, whose In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz remains the most vivid account of the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko. “No one was too sure of the identity of the rebel movement, the new bosses in town. And then there were the roaming Rwandans, whose intervention in Zaire was being denied by the government next door but was too prominent to ignore.”
In 1998 Mwangachuchu returned to Goma and began negotiating for some of the old Belgian concessions.
Artisanal miners flocked to Masisi like bees to honey. The scramble for minerals, just like the historic Scramble for Africa, proved a bloody staging ground for exploitation and plunder. Coltan and other minerals did a grimly effective job of financially sustaining the Rwandan-backed war effort in the region. In a report released in January 2002, the Pole Institute, a research group based in Goma, concluded that the new mineral trading networks that emerged “meant the emergence of a mafia economy organized around the rebel armies.”
The coltan rush didn’t see $300-a-pound prices for very long — the price slumped to under $50 by the end of 2001. But that was long enough to fabulously enrich concession holders and owners of the comptoirs, the trading houses in the provincial capitals of Goma and Bukavu. To quote a mining executive who became contemplative as he sipped his red wine at Bukavu’s Gorilla Bar, “Anyone who has a beautiful house on the lake knows the smell of coltan.”
The artisanals stayed.
At the age of 22, Nshimiyemana has been shovelling for coltan in the riverbed near the senator’s property for nine years. It took three tries before Nshimiyemana would give up his name, preferring to be identified as “Bravo” because, he says, his name sounds Rwandan and so “I don’t want to give it.”
The skinniest of young boys are running down to the water, one in a Timbits T-shirt with a scrap of yellow and red fabric tied around his waist. The river twists and turns through this Technicolor valley as Nshimiyemana and young men like him excavate the riverbed, sifting rocks into channels they have dug into the embankment. They will haul their material to their village of Nyambisi. Buyers come to the village. The young men work in teams of three. On a good day, they will earn $12 among them. The good days are rare.
High school teachers in the capital of Kinshasa earn $50 a month; university professors $200.
Nshimiyemana leans on the handle of his shovel. The Pole Institute forewarned in 2002 that young people distracted by easy money would abandon school for coltan mining. Nshimiyemana says he went up to “senior 3.” And then, he says, “I dropped.”
The senator’s modest efforts at mechanization hardly compare. He has plans for development, but, he insists, not the means. “I can produce 50 tonnes easily if I have the equipment,” he says. “But it’s very hard to get money to finance a mine. The banks will lend only at rates of 18 per cent to 20 per cent.”
This leaves the senator in a bind, with his property placed in what the world still sees as a war-ravaged, unsafe region, not the kind of environment to which foreign investment dollars are easily wooed. “The clever people win,” he says. “The people who have access to capital are the winners.”
It is important for the senator to portray a picture of stability in the region. “Peace is coming,” is his mantra. “It’s a process. Peace takes time.”
From a modest wooden building, which houses the site manager for HMI, the senator’s company, observers can plainly see the brightly clean and, apparently, freshly hoisted flag of the CNDP on the adjacent property. In a report released last November, the United Nations Security Council reported that units of the former Congrès National Pour la Défense du Peuple had gained military control of most of the strategic mineral-rich areas in the Kivus. A year earlier, the CNDP had been “integrated” into the Congolese army, the FARDC. Criminal networks within the FARDC were to blame for the illegal taxation and extortion rackets, or the mafia links that Kabila intended to suppress with the implementation of a mining ban.
In Goma, the senator had reflected on the forces of insecurity and conflict in the Kivus. “Yes we were in a dirty situation,” he said then. “But we are coming back.” Upon seeing the flag in Masisi, he launched into a heated argument with a group of young men before ordering that the flag be taken down.
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So much is opaque.
The CNDP is still a presence in Rubiya, a grim, wind-swept town chosen as the location for the regional centre de négoce. Five such centres are being built in the Kivus with the support of MONUSCO, the United Nations stabilization mission in the Congo. Minerals that have been bagged and tagged in the field will be transported to the centre in Rubiya and secured by the division of mines. This is the beginning of a due diligence channel to verify that minerals are conflict-free. There are as many as 3,000 artisanal diggers inthe immediate area, covering 11 mining sites.
“We have to certify, audit, many things,” the senator acknowledges. “We cannot expect to be like Canada overnight.”
This is true.
Good intent is there among many players. Yet earlier in the week, at a meeting in Goma, the minister of mines from North Kivu had been informed of a shipment of minerals that had been stopped on a roadway and allowed to proceed only after a “personal arrangement” was made. The payoff was settled not in the form of Congolese francs, but of minerals.
“There were some shootings,” Minister Kubuya Ndoole Naasson was informed, as a group of interested and sometimes agitated observers, including the UN, gathered for an update on the progress of minerals sourcing. The minister himself was agitated to learn that minerals that had been confiscated had been released. He had not been informed. There was no owner on record. In whose name were they released? No answer was offered. The minister made the point that his predecessor had resigned over such issues.
Naasson would later lead a delegation to the first viewing of the centre denégoce at Rubiya. “You as a Canadian have the opportunity to show the world the DRC is ready to follow the traceability,” the minister eagerly remarked, looking out from under the suede sheriff’s hat he had chosen for the occasion, his thumbs hooked into his belt loops.
An unaccompanied return visit the following day revealed an armed and ominous town. The CNDP flag was on display.
It is easy to grow despondent.
Ian Smillie has been round this story before, in a different form. Lauded as one of the architects of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, created in 2003, Smillie quit two years ago in “disgust” over what wasn’t working in the “blood diamonds” arena.
Weak monitoring and light reviews — investigators spending too little time on the ground, neglecting to ask tough questions — and the failure to deal effectively with ongoing smuggling and fraud from Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and other countries left Smillie with “no confidence” in the process.
“Specifically in the Congo, the last review that was done found that the internal control mechanisms were weak to non-existent,” he says. “Forty per cent of the diamonds are presented to comptoirs in Kinshasa. There’s no way of tracing these back . . . They could be coming from just down the road. They could be coming from Zimbabwe or Mars.”
That drew a strong rebuke from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who said in a June 24 release: “In light of the military’s brutal crackdown on miners in December 2008, Canada continues to call for supervised exports from two Marange mines and a credible monitoring arrangement. Without these systems in place, Canada refuses to go along with the plan to certify Zimbabwe’s diamonds.”
The Kimberley Process, notes Smillie, “is falling to pieces.”
Smillie is an eager supporter of Dodd-Frank. It’s tougher on controls and third-party monitoring, he says. “The question now is not the design. I think the design actually looks pretty good. The question is, can they do it?
“I would be happy to support any initiative that would do in Canada what Dodd-Frank has done in the U.S.,” he continues. “I think more and more consumers and governments of all countries that consume these products realize they have a responsibility.”
Interestingly, as chairman now of the Diamond Development Initiative, Smillie has turned his attention to the plight of artisanal diamond miners and how to lever the extraction of diamonds from alluvial deposits into individual and national development. When he was still involved in the Kimberley Process, governments would never give him the time of day when he started talking about the diggers and their children.
A snapshot: a diamond comptoir in Kinshasa. A gem dealer has seven small piles of diamonds placed on a white paper blotter before him. Three diamond sellers sit across from the dealer, all in a row. The sellers have brought in plastic baggies of alluvial gems. They await the dealer’s assessment on quality and his decision on price.
A big-screen TV is blaring in the background, images of Mobutu at the height of his powers after he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 1973 with his Flame of Freedom speech. There was dancing in the streets then, when Mobutu was still a useful ally to the West, before his famed corruption drained the Congo dry.
“All of this is focused to the politics of the country,” says the comptoir owner, as talk turns to the Congo of today and its mineral riches.
He pinches a pretty white diamond and drops it on a weigh scale. The diamond makes a surprisingly sharp “plink” as it lands. Weight: 1.1 carats. Diamonds are as plentiful as tears in the Congo.
The diamond dealer says the country is full of mining lore. Sorcerers cast spells. They can, you know, take all the minerals away.
Senator Edouard Mwangachuchu
Mining executive in the Congo
In Part 3 of their series, Jennifer Wells and Lucas Oleniuk travel to South Kivu to check out the new gold mines of Toronto-based Banro Corp.
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