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Map Shows Gold is Top Conflict Mineral in Eastern Congo

  • Nick Long

FILE - Gold miners form a human chain while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine near the village of Kobu in northeastern Congo, Feb. 23, 2009.

FILE - Gold miners form a human chain while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine near the village of Kobu in northeastern Congo, Feb. 23, 2009.

Researchers have produced a new map of mining sites in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo showing which are sites are controlled by armed groups and which are controlled by the Congolese army. Their findings suggest the number one conflict mineral from the region is now gold, which is harder to trace than the other minerals from the area.

The research, carried out by a Belgian organization, the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), in partnership with the DRC registry of mines, found armed groups are involved at about 200 out of the 800 mines they surveyed, while the army is involved at 265 mines. Furthermore, researchers say both the army and milities impose illegal taxes on miners.

IPIS carried out a similar survey in 2009. In an interview with VOA, lead researcher Filip Hilgert said the map they produced then has been out of date for some time. Many of the miners have switched to digging for gold and the armed groups are profiting much more from gold than from the other so-called conflict minerals: tin, tungsten and tantalum, known as the "three T's."

One reason for this has been a hike in the gold price. Another factor, said Hilgert, has been the introduction of stricter international guidelines on sourcing minerals, including the anti-conflict minerals legislation passed by the U.S. Congress.

Those initiatives, he said, have had a big effect on the trade in the three T's, but not on the region’s gold trade. That's because of gold’s higher value-to-weight ratio, said Judith Sargentini, a member of the European parliament who is campaigning for a European conflict minerals law.

"You do not smuggle a pack of tin because it is just too heavy and it is only worth it if you have plenty of it, whereas gold is like diamonds - it is easier, Sargentini said. "So I think it is much more difficult to certify, which shows again that certification is not necessarily the way forward."

Since 2006, the countries of the region have discussed certifying their exports of the four minerals, but very few certificates have been issued. In the meantime, most international buyers have boycotted three T's from the region, except for production from a few of the mines where each sack of minerals has a tag attached to it certifying it as conflict-free.

In the future it may be possible to trace production of the three T's using scientific methods. The German geological institute BGR (Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe) has collected mineral samples from hundreds of mines in Rwanda that could be used to prove whether or not a consignment of minerals came from a conflict zone.

But gold can be fairly easily melted, and once it is, tracing it by its physical properties becomes very difficult, according to BGR. Sargentini suggests that geophysical tests are not a practical answer to conflict mineral problems.

"You cannot solve every trade in a commodity by trying to find out what the geological background of a material is," she said. "This shows that you need, first of all, a due diligence supply chain, and second of all, initiatives that lead to fair trade in gold."

As in knowing and having trust in your supplier.

The U.N. group of experts on Congo has documented links between gold buyers and armed groups in the region, but so far these buyers have not been sanctioned by the states where they operate.

The head of Rwanda’s mining association, Jean Marc Kalima, agrees with Sargentini that gold buyers should be more diligent, or else face sanctions. Kalima said the gold trade could be better controlled by focusing on gold buyers. The companies that buy gold in the region are few and well-known, he added, making it a matter of organizing buyers and sellers.

The Congolese government penalized some buyers last year, when it suspended the export licenses of two Chinese companies amid allegations they dealt in conflict minerals, said John Kanyoni, a leading spokesman for mineral buyers in Congo. Rwanda has also disciplined some traders, he said, urging other countries to do the same.

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