top of page

The 'Silent Genocide' in Congo

Image credits- iStock


The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been embroiled in a relentless cycle of violence, conflict, and exploitation. At the heart of the crisis lies the pugnacious issue of coltan mining, and the ramifications of this issue have echoed far beyond the borders of this African nation.


Just like Nigeria has oil, and South Africa has diamonds, the DRC has coltan. African countries with excessive reserves of precious raw materials often find themselves prey to irresponsible and corrupt leadership, and the greed of Western powers. The DRC, with its largest reserves of coltan, is no exception. Mining in DRC has gained attention, albeit insufficiently, due to its association with grave human rights abuses and exploitation, along with fierce international competition and the power play to gain control of its natural resources.


Coltan and DRC

Coltan is a vital component that is used in producing electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and other high-tech gadgets. It has a variety of industrial applications and is most well-known as a critical component in the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices. The increased use of technological gadgets around the world has caused an insatiable demand for coltan, making it one of the world’s most sought-after resources. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this increased demand have been catastrophic for DRC, as the extraction of coltan in the country has become intertwined with violent conflicts, corruption, and human rights abuses. 


The DRC, although being one of the major sources of valuable minerals in the world, remains one of the poorest countries worldwide, with one in four Congolese people failing to meet their basic food needs(The Economist). This disproportionate reality signals a major humanitarian crisis resulting from exploitation and injustices such as child labour, unsafe working environments, and corruption. This also points to the fact that how this African nation has gotten embroiled in a conflict perpetuated by the militias, the DRC government, the neighbouring countries, and the Western powers.


Coltan and Human Rights Abuse

The exploitation of coltan mines in the DRC by various stakeholders has resulted in severe human rights abuses. There is a statutory requirement under mining laws, which states that the businesses involved in extracting coltan are required to compensate the affected communities appropriately, despite which they are rarely compensated. The lack of compensation compounds the poverty of the communities affected by the Coltan mine, making them even more susceptible to violence and forced evictions. Similarly, despite reforms in the DRC’s mining code in 2017 (The Revised Code, which amended the 2002 Mining Code2 and was adopted by both houses of Parliament on 27 January 2018) to penalise child labour, a large number of children still continue to toil in dangerous conditions.


The impact of DRC’s mining industries on human rights and human development cannot be overstated. Forced evictions and human rights violations by local governments and mining companies have been widely reported and are linked to the growth of industrial-scale coltan mines. Forced evictions are one of the most pressing issues that must be addressed. The government and mining companies are deceiving communities into agreeing to poor settlements, and there has been a flagrant disregard for legal protections. The need of the hour is that every project that is implemented in a community meets the requirement of free and prior consent so that the community’s rights over its resources are maintained.


Coltan and Slavery

As the use of technology increases, so will the demand for coltan, which means an increase in unorganised labour practices. The Coltan mines are alive with the spread of Sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections, prostitution, child trafficking, sexual harassment, physical abuse, sickness and rape. These mines also expose workers to a radioactive substance, which is associated with coltan radon.  This radioactive material is dangerous to touch and still, many civilians who are forced into labour lack proper training and touch these materials with their bare hands, consequently facing severe health issues. Militias exporting coltan from DRC have also been reported to capture and enslave civilians(The Liberty Wire)- including children and women, who are forced to toil coltan in unbearable situations.


The DRC government has tried to take preventative measures to stop child labour in the mines. The government has passed various laws(including the Mining Code of 2002, the Mining Code of 2018, etc.), statutory provisions, and even reformed the mining code back in 2017. Yet, none of these measures has stopped child labour, as owners of these mines have found loopholes in the laws, using certification and traceability schemes to keep child workers in their mines. Because of these schemes, most of the coltan extracted in the DRC is uncertified and untraceable. The DRC government is understaffed and underfunded, so they cannot make sure the mines are in compliance with the laws already in place, hence the situation remains just the same – unaffected.


Image credits- Pinterest


Coltan and Environmental Degradation

Coltan mining in the DRC has been linked to substantial environmental degradation, which has resulted in devastating effects for the region, according to extensive research. According to the Global Forest Watch platform, the Democratic Republic of Congo's tree cover has been lost by 8.6%, and coltan mining is recognized as a significant cause of deforestation. Disturbingly, environmental impact assessments are rarely conducted before coltan mining, leading to the violation of historical heritage sites as well.


Due to the lack of state oversight at most locations, artisanal miners frequently disobey rules, going deeper than is advised and worsening environmental harm. In the manual method of mineral separation, chemicals that contaminate water sources and create radioactive materials dangerous to human health and aquatic life are washed into streams and rivers. Women and people with uteruses are often the most directly impacted by this form of pollution, as it often targets reproductive systems and impacts breast milk composition, which in turn impacts the health outcomes of future generations.


Violent Conflict and the Role of International Actors

Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a troubled past, marked by political unrest, exploitation, and conflict. The valuable ore led to power struggles that resulted in the "African World War" in the late 1990s, involving multiple African nations and rebel groups. Conflicts over natural resources in the DRC are common and frequently turn violent, resulting in fatal incidents and violent skirmishes, as stakeholders resort to armed groups or state security forces to defend their claims to land or resources. Moreover, the abuse of minerals by remote companies within the eastern DRC has caused social turmoil and armed group activity on several occasions.


A November 2023 update warned of a spike in violence and high rates of civilian casualties and displacement due to clashes involving “militant groups over territory and natural resources, extrajudicial killings by security forces, political violence, and rising tensions with neighbouring countries.” Nearly 7 million people are currently internally displaced in the country due to the threat of violence and atrocities, extreme poverty, and mining expansion, and this number continues to grow. 


The West and other neighbouring countries have been accused by many Congolese of attempting to conquer the DRC for a second time. Rwanda-which allegedly backs one of the worst non-state militias in the DRC, is known as being the world’s biggest exporter of Coltan, which is ironic because Rwanda itself lacks Coltan mines. 

The eastern DRC, home to the world's largest Coltan Mine, was viewed as a gold mine by DRC neighbors Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi and also by global agents. Many Congolese left their other jobs in the area to begin mining Coltan. The prospect of profits also attracted armed groups and militia that harvested the land and exploited the local population with brutal violence. All this combined puts the lives of ordinary people in jeopardy, as they are not only forced to mine coltan under dangerous circumstances but also because they find themselves embroiled in a vicious cycle of violence, conflict, and humanitarian abuse. 


Conclusion

The human rights infringement and natural harm caused by the mining of coltan within the DRC must be tended to direly. Universal participation, straightforwardness in mining operations, and compliance with ethical measures throughout the whole supply chain are essential to diminish the annihilating impacts of coltan mining on individuals and the planet. To put an end to the ‘silent genocide’ within the DRC, a multi-pronged approach is required. This approach ought to incorporate the endeavours of the Congolese Government, worldwide organizations, innovation companies, and respectful society to actualize rigid directions, empower moral mining hones, and guarantee that the picks up from coltan extraction are shared with nearby communities.

 

In order to truly address the ongoing cycle of violence and exploitation in the coltan mining industry, it is crucial for all stakeholders to prioritize and uphold principles of transparency, accountability, and sustainable development. This collective commitment is paramount in paving the way towards a more equitable and just future for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is only through united global efforts that the silent genocide occurring in Congo comes to an end.

 

By: Arav Jandu

2nd year student of political science (H) at the Hindu College.

 

References



28 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page