Miners in Congo Julien Harneis on Flickr

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–The period from 1998 to 2003 is known in the Democratic Republic of Congo as The Great War of Africa, Africa’s World War and the Second Congo War.

Militias and armies from eight neighboring nations plundered the country’s eastern provinces in a quest to control copper, gold, diamonds, tin and other high-value minerals to supply India and China’s booming markets.

Mining areas, battlefields and rape have overlapped over the last 10 years as neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi became major exporters of minerals, despite having little in the way of domestic mining operations.

Natural resources have trapped the Democratic Republic of Congo in more than a century of conflict linked to international exploitation of its natural resources, from rubber under King Leopold II to diamonds and minerals, which are processed into metals that fuel the electronics industry, today.

Profitable Conflict

The Enough Project, a Washington-based organization campaigning against genocide and crimes against humanity, calculates that the armed groups in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu earn $183 million annually from illegal mining, which entails smuggling materials and evading taxation.

In 2002, the United Nations accused 85 Western companies of profiting from the fighting among militia groups and prolonging a conflict that has made eastern Congo synonymous with the worst rape epidemic in the world.

“Congo’s neighbors have added a great deal of fuel–gasoline–to this fire,” John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, told U.S. senators earlier this month at a hearing on sexual violence in the region.

A U.N. investigative report in December accused Congo and Rwanda’s governments–foes turned friends in a recent military campaign–of providing support to armed groups that finance their activities through the illegal exploitation of natural resources.

Those groups are also implicated in the worsening epidemic of rape in the region.

In the first three months of this year, HEAL Africa, a legal and medical advocacy group in the region, treated 1,590 sexual violence survivors at its Goma hospital in North Kivu. Soldiers and militias, according to the hospital’s quarterly figures, shared responsibility for this new surge of sexual violence.

The Enough Project is not proposing a divestment campaign, as much as an end to the dual economy undermining Congo’s mining sector.

Need for Public Participation

Despite vast deposits of gold, diamonds and lucrative mineral ores in the Congo Basin, the average salary in the country is less than $300 per year and the country is $11 billion in debt. Mining is the largest source of foreign investment, but it provides only a small share of local income generation or national government spending.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress last year, could help Congo by requiring national and foreign companies registered with the Securities ands Exchange Commission to report payments of over $100,000 to foreign governments for mineral extraction.

“Citizens do not know who is selling their resources and who is being paid for it,” Sarah Pray, coordinator of the Washington-based Publish What You Pay Coalition, told Women’s eNews. “In DRC this problem is amplified because these natural resources are being sold and exchanged for arms to keep this atrocious war going.”

Congo has been going through a process of contract review and renegotiation with foreign investors since 2007.

Contracts signed during the 1998 to 2003 conflict are coming under particular scrutiny by Congo’s government. Pray said this process underscored the importance of having public debate and public participation in the sale of natural resources.

Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc. is one of the six–out of 61–unresolved contracts. The company mines in Katanga, home to the world’s largest known copper-cobalt resources, and claims to be the lowest-cost producer of copper.

“What we saw in DRC is that the government was not always getting the best deal for its resources,” Pray told Women’s eNews. “And that needs to be talked about.”

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

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