— Africa's Great Lakes region has gotten a reputation in recent years as a source of so-called conflict minerals - ore and extracted metals like tin and tantalum that are sold or taxed by rebel groups. But now the region's biggest producer, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is saying the problem is largely over and most of its production can be labelled conflict-free.
In case they don’t hear the cock crow, the citizens of Rubaya in North Kivu are awakened nearly every morning by the loudspeakers of this evangelist preacher.
It’s a mining town, where people like to get to work early, and these days they need to, if they are to scrape together a living.
Mining here is not industrialized. Instead, earth containing tin and tantalum ore is dug out of the hills with hoes and spades and then washed in muddy brown streams.
Jean Ngarukirifura, head of a team of diggers at Rubaya, said there are no armed groups or military involved in these mines, but still, demand for their product is low. He said he doesn’t know why.
Demand for Rubaya’s product has been low since legislation was passed by the United States Congress that aimed to cut the link between Congo’s armed groups and the trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.
The Dodd Frank Act, passed in 2010, requires U.S. listed companies using those minerals to state whether they have come from the Congo, and if so, what steps have been taken to ensure they did not fund conflict.
Since the act was passed, the prices for the DRC’s tin and tantalum have fallen by more than half while world prices have held steady.
But some Congolese think the blow to its exports has been worth it because of the other effects of the act.
Prince Kihangi is head of the North Kivu Civil Society Association’s working group on mining. He said the number of armed groups in the province has gone down in the past two years because the Dodd Frank Act has cut their funding.
The North Kivu provincial minister for mines, Jean Ruyange Njongo, said the involvement of armed groups have declined so much that the bigger mines in North Kivu’s Walikale territory - where most of the province’s minerals are located - could now be certified as conflict-free.
He said, "Today you can go to Walikale and walk around those mining sites, and you will see there are practically no problems there of conflict or of armed groups."
The United Nations stabilization mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, confirmed to VOA that in recent months there has been little activity by armed groups in Walikale and the army has driven them out of the main mining areas.
Prince Kihangi agreed with the minister that now is the time to relaunch mining in Walikale.
But international buyers will take some convincing. A spokesperson for the tin industry association ITRI, Kay Nimmo, said buyers are just not interested in North Kivu because they think there is still too much conflict there.
Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher with the pressure group the Enough Project
- which campaigns on the conflict minerals issue - agreed with that analysis.
If ITRI is not active in North Kivu, he said, it is simply because of security issues.
Minister Ruyange said this is not logical, as ITRI is operating in South Kivu at a site closer to the M23, the most powerful rebel group in the Kivus.
He blamed the media for giving what he calls a false impression that North Kivu is overrun by armed groups.