State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Mineral resources in the DRC

'We no longer have to suffer this wealth as a curse'

Over four days in July and August 2010, rebel fighters cut off, encircled and attacked 13 villages in the remote Walikale area of North Kivu. At least 387 women, men and children were systematically subjected to brutal rapes. According to local residents, most of whom belong to the Nianga ethnic group, the attacks were punishment for their suspected pro-government sympathies. They told UN investigators that they believed rape was deliberately chosen as a weapon because of the stigma traditionally attached to it in their culture.

UN investigations revealed that the attackers were from three different rebel groups that had joined forces so as to force the government into negotiations by demonstrating their power to harm civilians. The groups were using the minerals trade in the resource-rich area to help finance their activities. Meanwhile, the army commanders responsible for protecting the villagers were distracted from their duty by the same trade, having ordered their units not to deploy to the new posting in Walikale because their old one was in a more lucrative zone.

The findings caused the government and its international partners to stop and take stock of the role of minerals in sustaining conflict in eastern DRC. The region, which is about the same area as the United Kingdom, is rich in gold, as well as tantalum, tin and tungsten vital to the electronics industry. Up to 90 per cent of its mining, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), is 'artisanal', or small-scale and informal. Roughly 2 million people, including children, work in harsh conditions in the mines, at times subject to forced labour or debt bondage.

While competition over the mines is obviously not the root cause of conflict in the DRC – complex issues of ethnic identity, regional rivalry, economic interests, political power and access to land all play a part – the trade has clearly helped to sustain and perpetuate conflict. Armed men control some mines directly and also profit by taxing transport of minerals through their territory.

Following the Walikale findings, the DRC President Joseph Kabila attempted to impose control by mandating the closure, without community consultation, of all artisanal production and trade in minerals and ordering the demilitarization of mining zones.

According to some reports, the measures were not universally enforced throughout the vast and remote region, but were reported to have seriously damaged the livelihoods of individual miners and their families in areas where they were. They were lifted in March 2011.

Official stakeholders in the mining industry, including government officials and representatives of artisanal miners, companies buying and trading minerals and concerned civil society groups, agreed a new code of conduct. Critics pointed out that the code's scope was limited given that influential but unofficial actors such as the army and other armed groups were not included.

Internationally, efforts focused on regulating trade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, endorsed by the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region in December 2010. The UN Security Council adopted a similar framework in its November resolution on DRC. The global mining industry has also reportedly drawn up new internal rules regarding 'conflict minerals'.

Due diligence principles became legally binding under Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which came into effect in April 2011. It required companies listed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate their supply chain and disclose annually for the public record whether they used minerals from the DRC or its nine neighbouring countries in their products. The SEC was charged with drawing up implementing regulations, but as of this writing they had not been published.

Critics of the Dodd-Frank law say that it has impoverished local miners and their communities by forcing companies to boycott DRC minerals altogether. In December, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC indicated that in peaceful areas where guidance has been followed, production and exports have increased; but in conflict areas, few if any changes have been made and output has indeed fallen. Moreover, a greater proportion of trade has become criminalized, and the military and/or armed groups are still involved.

Supporters of due diligence argue that time and help are needed to work out implementation, and that short-term losses will be more than offset by the long-term benefits. A Walikale NGO, BEDEWA (Bureau of Study, Observation, and Coordination of the Regional Development of Walikale) has written to the SEC in support of Dodd-Frank. In a public statement in August, the group responded to critics of the measures:

'Come visit the territory of Walikale to assess its population's degree of vulnerability. Come see how this territory and local communities have not benefited from these riches. Come see the displacement of populations fleeing atrocities committed by belligerents seeking to control mining zones.... Walikale local communities must now have a say and express their views on the exploitation of their resources and its generated profits sharing. It is necessary to correct past mistakes. We no longer have to suffer this wealth as a curse.'

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