New Internationalist

The true cost of your call

Most of us probably haven't even heard of cassiterite - the mineral used in electronics, especially laptops. There was a time when laptops used to be hugely expensive. Now you can pick up one for a couple of hundred pounds. I don't know whether there is a relationship between the cheap price of laptops and the slave mining of cassiterite, but it is quite possible.

The website Ota Benga, and a YouTube film, 'Grand Theft Congo', reveal what's going on.

'At a remote mine in central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), workers with torches and pick- axes hack at the ruddy earth. They are mining cassiterite, a mineral vital in the production of laptops and mobile phones. But dispersed among the miners are Congolese Government troops - in plain clothes for the camera - literally forcing most workers to work at gunpoint. "The soldiers always steal everything. They even come to shoot people down the mineshafts," complains Regina Maponda. Western greed for cassiterite is fuelling the boom - at an airfield near the mine, soldiers jealously guard their loot as it makes its way to Japan and the West. Conflict mining is a curse.'

'There is much the G8 can do where mining feeds conflict. Oil bunkering in the Niger Delta is made much easier through the low intensity war taking place between militants and the Nigerian army. Both are involved, as well as politicians - there are huge amounts of money to be made. As with diamond mining in Angola, copper and cassiterite from the DRC and oil from the Niger Delta are all traded on the London and New York stock exchange. Buyers and sellers always claim they know nothing about the conditions of the mining but that cannot be true. Some named multinationals involved in the trade of mineral in the DRC are Anglo-Gold Ashanti [alleged financial support to armed groups in exchange for concessions], Belgian company Sogem and the UK's Afrimex... though not named in human rights violations, it's hard to imagine they don't know the conditions in which the mining takes place, since they buy the cassiterite in its raw form. Across the border in Rwanda in the town of Gisenyi there is a cassiterite smelting plant owned by Metal Processing Association, which is owned by South Africans.'

 'Another white man sailing up the wrong river. Instead of sailing up the Congo, he should be sailing up the Thames, which is where coltan is traded - at the London Metals Exchange. And who owns these concessions? Who is the plunderer? How does coltan end up in London? Here's how the supply chain works.
The metal is mined by slave labour, many under the guard of soldiers from various armies in the Kivu region. It is then moved by more slave labour to central loading locations, where it is bought by private traders who fly the mineral to Goma and or Kigali in Rwanda. The ore is further purified and then shipped by road to Mombassa or Dar es Salaam, travelling via Uganda. Now the Uganda / DRC border, Bunagana is controlled by various armies; of course they collect taxes on the mineral exports.Once at the ports, shipping agents take over responsibility for the mineral and getting it over to Europe, Japan and China. Alongside the supply train is a parallel train of war and continued conflict and militarization of the mining and commerce. Governments in the G8 also turn a blind eye towards something they could well take action on.'

So what's being done? Germany plans to initiate a certification process which would be for all the G8 countries. In the US, the Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite Act is being considered, as is a certification process. There have been some minor censures in Britain, but without prosecutions these are pretty worthless. So at a very minute level something is being done, but nothing that will make much impact on the slave labour at the source. On a final note - Nokia is planning to expand its Congolese market and the Chinese Government has signed a deal with Rwanda to build a mobile phone plant which of course will need copper, cobalt, tantalum and tin - all from the DRC.

Sources: Africa Faith & Justice Network, OtaBenga, Grand Theft Congo [video]

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