Cellphones fuel Congo conflict
Cellphones may have revolutionized the way we communicate, but in Central Africa their biggest legacy is war.
Nearly 3 million people have died in Congo in a four-year war over coltan, a heat-resistant mineral ore widely used in cellphones, laptops and playstations. Eighty percent of the world's coltan reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The mountainous jungle area where the coltan is mined is the battleground of what has been grimly dubbed "Africa's first World War," pitting Congolese forces against those of six neighbouring countries and numerous armed factions.
The victims are mostly civilians. Starvation and disease have killed hundreds of thousands and the fighting has displaced 2 million people from their homes.
Often dismissed as an ethnic war, the conflict is really over natural resources sought by foreign corporations -- diamonds, tin, copper, gold, but mostly coltan.
At stake for the multitude of heavily armed militias and governments is a cut of the high-tech boom of the 1990s, which sent the price of coltan skyrocketing to peak at US$400 per kilo. Coltan -- short for colombo-tantalite -- is refined into tantalum, a "magic powder" essential to many electronic devices.
The war started in 1998 when Congolese rebel forces, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, seized eastern Congo and moved into strategic mining areas, attacking villages along the way.
The Rwandan Army was soon making an estimated US$20 million a month from coltan mining.
A May 2002 report from the United Nations Security Council said the huge coltan profits are fueling the war and allowing "a large number" of government officials, rebels and foreigners "to amass as much wealth as possible."
The fighting rages on despite peace treaties signed in the summer of 2002. The peace process was started after the assassination of Congolese President Laurent Kabila in January 2001 and pressure from South Africa. But not all sides signed on. While foreign troops have officially withdrawn, internal factions remain at war.
Digging for "Black Gold"
The war over coltan has transformed Congo in more subtle ways, too. Farmers displaced from their land have little option but to join coltan-mining brigades. Mined much like gold, coltan is found by digging large pits in riverbeds, with armies of miners scraping away dirt to get to the coltan underground.
Using large washtubs, they slosh the water and mud allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom because of its heavy weight. Reports say a third of the region's children are giving up school to dig for coltan.
The rebel camps have also created a huge market for prostitution, and with it, AIDS. An estimated 2 million people are HIV-infected in Congo.
Reports of rampant human-rights abuses pour out of the rebel-controlled mining region. Local men, women and children are forced into mining, fighting and sex work, threatened with torture, rape and murder.
The coltan makes its way out of the mines to "trading posts" which are taxed or controlled by the rebels. Foreign traders then buy the mineral and ship it abroad, mostly through Rwanda.
All of it winds up bought by just three companies - Cabot Inc. of the United States, Germany's HC Starc and China's Nigncxia - the only firms with processing plants to turn coltan into the coveted tantalum powder.
The "magic powder" is then sold to Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday products.
Tantalum traders claim it is impossible to accurately trace the source of coltan. Unlike diamonds, tantalum dust is hard to "fingerprint." (Outcry over the bloody diamond wars of Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia led to diamonds being "fingerprinted" with micro stamps, such as Canada's polar bear image, guaranteeing a war-free product.)
Fingerprinting tantalum dust is not as simple, but legitimate and sufficient sources of coltan do exist in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia and China.
Concern over the Congolese war has prompted some industry players to claim they are now more diligent about where their coltan comes from. But no international boycott or embargo of Congolese coltan is yet in place. In any case, it is also unclear how a boycott would be physically enforced.
Save the Gorillas
Human-rights groups in Europe have launched campaigns on Congo, but so far they have not perked up Western ears.
Ironically, it may be the endangered Congolese gorilla population that finally gets the West to show concern about Congo and its devastating conflict.
Actor Leonaro Di Caprio and other celebrities have spoken out against the destructive impact of coltan mining on the environment and the mountain gorilla. Di Caprio is working with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which has launched an international campaign to hold the high-tech industry accountable for the effects of coltan mining on gorillas.
To date, no high-tech company has made any major commitments to respect the cause.
In November 2002, representatives of the Dian Fossey fund were scheduled to travel to South Africa on a mission to help resolve the crisis in the Congo.
Other groups like Television Trust for the Environment -- which is at the forefront of educating people on links between environmental degradation, poverty and war -- are also campaigning for more global action on Congo.
For good daily coverage of the Congo situation, visit the website of the UK's BBC network
For more information on the campaign for peace in Congo, please return to our website in Spring 2003 (Season III), when we launch a campaign to support peace and accountability in the region.