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Stolen Goods: Coltan and Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo

From: SAIS Review
Volume 22, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2002
pp. 103-118 | 10.1353/sais.2002.0016

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SAIS Review 22.1 (2002) 103-118



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Stolen Goods:
Coltan and Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Dena Montague

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The current war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has brought unspeakable devastation upon its people. With approximately 73,000 people dying monthly 1 , the death toll is rapidly approaching four million in three years of war. 2 The conflict has created a population so ravaged that women in some villages "have simply stopped taking their children to the health centers because they no longer posses simple items of clothing to preserve their dignity." 3 Congolese in the eastern region of the country are faced with a lack of available hospitals and health clinics, most have been destroyed during the war, leaving at least 18.5 million people without access to health care. Preventable disease and starvation have caused the majority of deaths, overwhelmingly suffered by civilians. Women and children account for approximately 40% of war casualties. In Mobia and Kalemie in Katanga, 75 percent of children born during the war have died or will die before their second birthday. 4

The international community has distanced itself from the war in the DRC. Despite the mounting death toll, the country receives only a trickle of aid and even less media attention. Internationally, it is recognized that the war has produced a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, yet rebel movements have been able to successfully sustain their war efforts by plundering and looting the economic wealth of the country's mineral-rich eastern region. The Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), as well as the Congolese rebels they each support-- [End Page 103] the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and Congolese Liberation Front (CLF)--have ruthlessly exploited the mineral wealth from territories under their respective control. The occupying armies and their rebel clients have extended their jurisdiction miles west of the Ugandan and Rwandan borders, over Oriental Province, North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasi, and Katanga (Shaba).

This essay attempts to explain the connection between economic exploitation and conflict in Africa beyond a simplistic post-Cold War analysis of conflict based upon tribalism, primitiveness, and chaos. International competition for scarce resources in general, and for coltan in particular, is a key factor in the lack of state stability and the continuation of war in the DRC. Coltan is but one of many resources illegally mined and sold onto western markets to profit invading armies and rebel forces. Trade in diamonds, timber, copper, gold, and cobalt also helped finance invading armies and rebel movements. Coltan happened to be the most lucrative raw material, and, more than any other mineral resource, it attracted the invading forces and lured them into establishing full-fledged commercial operations. Although ethnic tensions existed prior to the war, the heightened ethnic conflict and the dismantling of civil society currently underway are a by-product of international trade in this region. This essay critiques international economic investment in illegitimate rebel movements. In this case, investment, far from encouraging strong state structures, has helped to create weak states based upon kleptocracy and corruption. The contribution of international investment to the destabilization of the DRC is significant and must be addressed if sustainable peace is ever to take root in this devastated region.

Stealing a Jewel of the DRC's Mineral Wealth

A Recent UN Security Council study entitled The Report of the Panel of Experts on theIllegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of Congo exposed the "systematic [End Page 104] and systemic" exploitation of the natural resources of the DRC by foreign armies. These natural resources were sold onto international markets. The sale of a mineral combination called coltan has been particularly significant.

Columbium (also known as niobium) and tantalum together compose what is commonly known as coltan, an essential but rare mineral. Coltan in its raw form simply looks like black mud or sand. Columbium and tantalum almost always occur together, but columbium is found in greater abundance than tantalum. Although the oxides of...