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Report Criticizes Firms for Trading in Minerals Fueling Conflicts in Congo

An advocacy group chastises the international community in a new report for failing to take substantive action to curb the trading of raw minerals that is fueling armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Global Witness, European and Asian countries have failed to crack down on domestically-based companies that are complicit in the trade's exploitation.

The report is the latest issued in the past few years on the Congo mineral trade by Global Witness, an organization that tracks how international trade affects local conflicts and instability around the world.

According to the group, the indirect funding of armed groups in the region through the business activities of foreign companies has gone unchecked by the companies' home countries, which include Britain, Belgium, Thailand, Malaysia, and Russia.

The head of conflict and resources research at Global Witness, Mike Davis, finds the continued inaction by certain countries appalling, considering the atrocious human-rights conditions the metals trade is helping to prop up. "We really think this is disgraceful because it is all very well governments like the United Kingdom talking up how much aid they give to the region, but when that is substantially canceled out by the activities of their own company, this leads to a situation that is utterly hypocritical and totally unacceptable," he said.

The region's enormous natural stockpile of raw resources has helped fuel the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is continually listed by human-rights groups as one of the worst in the world.

Global Witness cited the exporting of cassiterite, an ore used in the making of tin, as the most serious of the metal trades at the moment, but also listed raw coltan and gold as other metals helping to fund the conflict. "There is a direct link between the international trade, which ultimately puts these metals in consumer products like computers, phones, and tin cans, and the violence on the ground," David said.

Exploitation starts at the mines, which are either controlled by the armed groups or lie on a transport lane controlled by an armed group. A combination of forced labor and child labor is often used to bring the metals out of the ground, which are then either taxed by the armed group or passed to trading intermediaries.

These intermediaries then sell the metals to licensed exporters in the region, who sell the tainted minerals to foreign buyers.

According to Davis, these licensed exporters, known as "comptoirs" are the key links in the process that leads from rogue-owned mines to consumer product.

"The comptoirs are critical, because they know exactly what is going on. They know where the minerals are sourced from, what areas they come from and who controls those areas. And they are the gateway to the international trade. They sell to companies, including some very large ones, like the British-owned Thaisarco, which is the fifth-biggest processor of tin in the world," he said.

Research undertaken by Global Witness has led it to accuse the Congolese army and the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda of collaborating in the mineral exploitation, despite the fact the two are at war with each other.

Davis said his organization is calling for the international community to focus on solutions that eliminate the armed groups' participation in the trade. Among its recommendations is to put economic considerations central to the peace negotiation process, a move the organization alleges international mediators have been unwilling to do.

The British company Amalgamated Metal Corporation, which owns Thaisarco, responded to the report by saying it is actively involved in industry measures to trace minerals to their original source.

The company also said it believes pulling out of the region's mineral trade would have a harmful affect on the local civilians dependent on the industry for their livelihood.