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  • Hubert Marlin

The mines of shame


Congolese soil is full of buried treasures. The long civil war, which ravaged the east for most of the decade, was largely financed by minerals like those harvested in hillsides such as Bisie. Congo tin, tantalum and tungsten are used in electronics around the world. Although some of these minerals come from large industrial copper mines in Katanga, southern Congo, and a gold mine in South Kivu, there is not yet a single modern mine in North Kivu. In deep underground artisanal mines that often go beyond 30 meters in eastern Congo, children work to extract minerals essential for the electronics industry. Mineral profits finance the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. The war lasted nearly 20 years, recently broke out again.

Over the same 20-year period, the concept of corporate social responsibility in the West has evolved. Despite this Samsung, HTC and Apple still cannot guarantee that there will not be illegal child labor in the manufacture of their products, even if there is now an increased focus on the supply chain because the legal framework and the damage of the public opinion on companies because of information which often filter out of doubtful business.

Over the past 15 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a major provider of natural resources for the mobile phone industry. This special relationship has caused untold damage.

An English reporter says, "I have never experienced anything similar to what I saw the first time I entered the mines of Bisie. The armed groups had made a simple grid of sticks, and everyone entering or leaving had to pay them money. About 15 to 25,000 people were trapped in this village made of mud and plastic bags.

It was like entering the front yard of hell. Women who could not go to the mines, offered sexual services to passers-by as if they were selling vegetables. Boys as young as 12 looked at us with layers of dried mud on their still childish cheeks, after a day in the underground to dig precious minerals. The village nevertheless lives under the infusion of products from outside. All that is brought to the village is taxed at the door; a bottle of water costs several dollars, a kilogram of meat costs $ 12. But because it's more expensive to leave, people stay in this slum just to be able to have a meal. "

Mobile phone manufacturers do not directly operate the factories or mines that are essential for the manufacture of their products. Thanks to the trickery of screen companies and intermediaries not always respectable, they can turn a blind eye to practices already denounced by many reports. Bill Gates, Microsoft's largest shareholder, who bought the Nokia mobile phone brand, remains silent when asked about these mines of shame. The billionaire is however much more talkative when it comes to charitable activities in Africa, as the Afro pessimism camouflaged by the famous Western generosity, is much more important, than the thousands of deaths of artisanal mines, and the blatant theft, that the Congo suffers.

In 2007, some 18,000-people lived in Bisié, working on the site with picks and shovels. They produced about 14,000 tons of tin that year, about 5% of world production. To put it on the market, people were carrying concentrated ores on their heads through the jungle to an airstrip where small planes could land to export the cargo. It was a grueling, but lucrative activity for many Congolese. This era began to end in 2011, thanks in part to a US law.

Under the Dodd-Frank Act, a law aimed primarily at tightening banking regulations, companies operating in the United States must be able to show where the minerals used in their products come from. The idea was to prevent the rebels of poor countries from selling gold and diamonds to finance wars. The law has virtually shut down artisanal mining in much of eastern Congo, where neighboring Rwanda, which has since experienced some improvement, is accused of benefiting from the prevailing chaos by financing rebel groups. Like the one who makes the racket of the poor minors in Bisié.

In much of Africa, the exploitation of natural resources has often proved to be a curse. Precious stones and minerals financed rebel armies and maintained conflicts in motion. Governments that can make a lot of money from oil or mineral royalties, instead of promoting widespread growth, by taxing revenues and foreign companies that prefer never to pay a single tax when it is easier to bribe corrupt officials with a tiny fraction of what should be paid to the public treasury, subjugate the people instead of serving it. The ruling class in Central Africa generally spends its energies on making easy money rather than actually governing. However, in eastern Congo, the state has practically collapsed, leaving vast territories without law. Residents have discovered that even a government of poor quality is better than no government at all.

Since the mid-1990s, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been associated with the intoxicating liquidity of the electronics industry. The industry has killed more than 5 million people since. The case of the Congo is particular because of the scandal of its wealth and especially the humanitarian drama that has raged there for more than 20 years. Elsewhere natural resources are no less a curse for developing countries.

It is time for the electronics industries to come together, to take concrete action. There is even a sectoral body that has been set up to help: The Global Initiative for Sustainable Development (e-Sustainability Initiative) works for responsible transformation, facilitated by information and communication technologies, towards a sustainable world. But who will have the courage to take fair initiatives that continue to be seen for many in the West as an attack on the profit of multinationals that do not exist for the humanitarian purpose but for all-out profit. And worse the racist idea that Africa is a wild place to be taken by the most skilled in ferocity, remains very difficult to change in the way of dealing of Westerners and Asians with Africa and Africans. Read more at www.flashmag.net


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