The Congo’s tin soldiers (Blood Minerals) – by Jennifer Wells (Toronto Star – June 26, 2011)

Jennifer Wells is a feature writer with the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. No stranger to the mining industry, Ms. Wells won the 1999 National Business Book Award for Fever: The Dark Mystery of the Bre-X Gold Rush as well as covering many other major mining stories.

“You’ll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods, cotton or diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity.” — Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

BISIE, CONGO—The figure stirs suddenly, rising on one elbow, eyes blinking out from the dark, hand-dug mine shaft. Rough-hewn post-and-beam construction frames the entrance to the pit, partly obscuring the small cot upon which the creuseur has claimed a moment’s rest, a break from the brain-dulling monotony of hacking at the rock face with mallet and chisel and then, by brute strength, hauling broken ore to the surface, toward the sunlight.

At midday the heat is searing, baking an endless vista of rubble painted in colours of titian and yellow ochre. The treeless moonscape is a 45-minute roller-coaster climb beyond the tiny town of Bisie, itself a nine-hour walk — for the fleet of foot — from the nearest road in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Bisie “mine” isn’t really a mine at all, but a cassiterite deposit that has enticed creuseurs like diggers to the Klondike. From pits that run to 100 metres deep and more, miners excavate the ore that ultimately will be smelted to tin by big players in the smelting game, players that reside outside of the Congo. The tin is used not just for cans and containers, but in considerable measure by electronics manufacturers for lead-free solders, forging the link between a mountain in the Congo and shopping malls thousands of kilometres away displaying the latest in smart phones and laptops.

In this, Bisie, pronounced softly — Bee-see-aye — has become an infamous touchstone, representing one of the “Ts” in the group of so-called “3TG conflict minerals” targeted by American legislators. Historically heavily militarized, the mineral deposit has been stripped of her bounty physically by artisanal miners, and monetarily by armed groups.

The mountain is pocked with hundreds of pits, as if a frenzy of rodents had madly nuzzled into her side. Many of the pits have collapsed. Many are flooded, and what modest pumps can be had fail at the task of ridding the deeps of water. The number of miners who have died from rock fall or asphyxiation is unknown. One local says more than 200.

Body retrieval is culturally important, they say. And often impossible. The mountain bears the name Mpama, but the creuseurs have renamed it Golgotha, because it makes them suffer so.

Paul Pascal is a creuseur who has been toiling at Bisie since 2003. He appears far older than his 43 years, his skin worn to leather and stretched thin as parchment across his sculpted face. He lays down the end of life of the miner simply. “When there is a landslide, people forget about them.”

Pascal’s own existence has been upended. Last September, President Joseph Kabila announced a mining ban covering all minerals in the eastern Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu as well as Maniema, with the aim of breaking what Kabila called the “mafia” links between the extraction of minerals and the funding of conflict groups in the region. The month prior, the mass rape of more than 300 women over three days near the village of Luvungi heightened the anguished cry against the systemic pattern of sexual violence that has echoed through the region for more than a decade, a pattern fuelled, experts say, by armed groups seeking and gaining control over the exploitation of resources.

The mining ban was lifted in March. In April the long-awaited Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law last summer by U.S. President Barack Obama, was put into effect. Legislation that was principally aimed at protecting American consumers from reckless and abusive financial services — recall the “too big to fail” investment banking halo that was blown away by the financial meltdown of 2008 — emerged with an unlikely addendum directed at stopping conflict minerals whose exploitation and trade “is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The act requires the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt regulations governing exchange-listed companies, which will be compelled to disclose whether 3TG minerals — tin, tungsten, tantalite and gold — originated in the DRC or an adjoining country, and whether measures were taken “to exercise due diligence on the source and chain of custody of such minerals.” A product may be labelled “DRC conflict free” if it does not contain 3TG minerals that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the DRC. Audits are meant to prove the case. The SEC, which had been expected to release its regulations in April, has announced a postponement to August, at the earliest.

Canadians will be getting their own legislative update on conflict minerals soon. NDP MP Paul Dewar intends to retable his Trade in Conflict Minerals Act in September, which in part defines “due diligence” as supply-chain tracking, from mineral extraction to final utilization. Dewar is reaching out to civil society organizations to support what he hopes will be a robust campaign aimed at raising consumer awareness, similar to the work done by the Enough Project in the U.S. in elevating “blood minerals” to the league of “blood diamonds” in the consciousness of the buying public.

“We talked to them about how they got their campaign launched,” Dewar says. “How they used it to get peoples’ attention and focus on not just the issue but how you deal with the obvious connection between mining and rape as a weapon of war and the conflict itself and how you can directly connect our consumption with the fuelling of the conflict.”

Part of the framing of the issue will be aimed at end-use manufacturers. “Those companies that are willing to take part in this and brand themselves conflict-free . . . they’ll obviously benefit from this from the commercial and marketing side,” says Dewar. “I know that sounds crass. If you want to make a profound effect, you’re going to have to see a benefit.”

A profound effect of a different kind is being felt at Bisie. The long arm of Dodd-Frank, even without the SEC’s final pronouncements, has resulted in an effective embargo on all mineral exports from the Kivus.

Congolese businessmen complain that they have been left twisting in the wind. John Kanyoni runs a comptoir in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. The comptoirs are minerals exporters. Congolese law decrees that the comptoirs purchase their minerals from négociants, or traders. The comptoirs in turn sell the minerals to smelters in Russia, Malaysia, the U.S. and elsewhere. As the head of the association of exporters, Kanyoni oversees a membership of roughly two dozen comptoirs.

Wearing a candy-striped shirt and the weary mien of someone too long on the road — he leafs through his passport to prove the point — Kanyoni relaxes momentarily at the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa. Back in the day, when the Grand was the Intercontinental, foreign journalists holed up here as they monitored the dying days of the Mobutu regime, stories stuffed with images of post-colonial decay and the inevitable imagery of the aging, cancer-afflicted ruler in his karakul hat, made not of lamb but of leopard skin.

Kanyoni extols the arrival of the modern age in the form of the American conflict legislation. “Our position is very clear — we are supportive of Dodd-Frank,” he says. “We do believe that it’s very important for us to cut the link between the armed groups and our activities.”

But increasing consumer demands for 100-per-cent traceability and certification have presented Kanyoni and his members with expectations they cannot meet. The knock-on effect of manufacturers closing their doors to minerals from the DRC has caused smelters to shutter their doors to the DRC’s comptoirs. Kanyoni says he was hoping Chinese smelters would step in. Or perhaps Indian. Later, in a phone conversation, he bleats, “There is no market!” His comptoir in Goma was sitting idle.

Business was dead. Or so it was said.

The creuseurs at Bisie remain at work. They are present not in the thousands, as they once were, but certainly in the hundreds. The diggers work in teams, ruled by pit bosses who have paid a fee to a local chief to take control of the pit. For a kilogram of cassiterite, the miners are currently paid 1,300 Congolese francs, or about $1.40. Before the ban the creuseurs were earning about four times that amount. “We’re just turning around like fish in a pond,” says Paul Pascal, seizing upon a perfect, if unlikely, metaphor. “We remain poor. We don’t know the price of this.”

There’s a short strip of stalls rimming the mining camp’s well-trod path. A restaurateur, who identifies himself as Kabuya, stands outside his “Restaurant Pasta,” which is a mess tent really, with sheets of tarp for walls. He says he is the chief businessman of the mountain. Business is scant. A young, shirtless creuseur, still dusted with the grit of the pits, is seated at the luncheon table. Beside him, two older miners share a single meal. Their habit had been to eat three times a day, they say, but now, only once.

Perhaps this is what mines minister Martin Kabwelulu had in mind last spring when, in reaffirming the mining ban, he noted the “paradox between mineral wealth concentrated in the provinces of the east and the generalized poverty of the population.”

Not that this is a new narrative in the Congo.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/1016680–the-congo-s-tin-soldiers

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