Thursday, May 05, 2011

D.R. Congo: Cutting the Hydra Head of Illegal Mining

Source: ISS
Cutting the Hydra Head of Illegal Mining

Nyambura Githaiga,
Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Program,
Nairobi Office

In the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the election agenda has been eclipsed by recent developments in the mining sector. The already delayed elections are slated for later on this year, commencing on 27 November with the presidential and parliamentary polls. However, the possible gains of a successful election offer cold comfort to populations in the East who grapple daily with survival in the context of lingering insecurity and underdevelopment. A major contributor to this negative context is the illegal exploitation of natural resources from which illegal armed groups benefit. Additional contributing factors, to name a few, include the continued presence of illegal armed groups, endemic sexual and gender-based violence, poor infrastructure, incomplete security sector reform, and systemic corruption. In the midst of this plethora of negative contributors to the status of Eastern DRC, illegal exploitation of natural resources takes precedence as a pervasive aspect of the conflict. Gaining access and control of mines in this mineral rich region has triggered the activity of illegal exploiters while perpetuating their existence through the illegal profiteering.

Against this backdrop, the DRC ban on mining and the US legislation on ‘conflict minerals’ came into being. In a bid to stop profiteering from illegal exploitation of illegal armed groups, the DRC government instituted a five-month ban in the Eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema from 10 September 2010 to 10 March 2011. Besides reports that this ban was largely ineffectual with sustained illegal exploitation, the ban had notable unintended consequences for the local population. With mining as the sole economic activity for populations residing around the mines, workers were effectively cut off from their source of livelihood forcing them to migrate to urban areas.

In a largely informal economy, the bigger towns in the East were faced with the challenge of absorbing this influx of economic migrants with limited transferrable skills. Residents in the host towns attributed the increased crime rate to the new migrants and in general perceived the ban as punitive to artisanal miners and detrimental to the economy as a whole. These hardships resulted in yet another unintended consequence in the waning popularity of the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, who had previously received support from the Eastern electorate. Apart from the unpopular ban, locals feel that Kabila’s 2006 election promises for socio-economic reconstruction and peace to the East, have not been quantifiably fulfilled.

Following closely on the heels of this ban was the adoption of the US legislation on ‘conflict minerals’ that was to take effect on April 1. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has since postponed the adoption of rules for this law to the period between August and December 2011. As referred to in the Dodd-Frank Act, conflict minerals are those that may directly or indirectly finance armed conflict or result in labour or human rights violations. The Act thus requires that in their annual reporting to the SEC, US companies reveal the source of minerals to prove that they are either not from the DRC or Central Africa, or if from this region, that they are certified as conflict-free. The US may well achieve its goal of ensuring a demand for certain minerals does not fuel conflict, however, it may not bode well for the DRC and Central African countries.

Firstly, the onerous requirements of this new Act for US companies may compel them to take their business elsewhere which would occasion losses for economies like DRC which depend on mining. Apart from the effects of a de facto embargo, there is the potential risk of illegal solutions to circumvent this hurdle. With the threat of not being able to fulfill traceability and certification demands, mineral smuggling in DRC may increase as vendors seek to export the minerals through other avenues that may qualify the minerals as conflict-free.

Nonetheless, conflict minerals and indeed illegal mining remain but a manifestation of the conflict in the DRC and should be seen in this context. Despite the predominance of illegal mining as an aspect of the conflict, this focus has consumed the debate giving the impression that regulating mining will deliver peace to the country. The reality is that illegal mining is opportunistic in this conflict scenario, fanning the flames but seldom causing the fire. In essence, some of the primary causes of conflict in the DRC such as land, governance, power and ethnicity are exacerbated by the more secondary causes of illegal mining, illegally armed groups and violence perpetrated within the confines of a weak State. The tunnel vision of the conflict minerals debate precludes the greater picture of transforming conflict and pursuing sustainable peace. Greek mythology depicts the Hydra as multiple headed water creature which when one head was cut off, two would grow in its place. Using this as a metaphor for conflict: until the roots of a conflict are satisfactorily dealt with, tackling the manifestations of the conflict is only cutting off the heads, which are likely to mutate. In the DRC, initiatives towards regulating the mining sector are like cutting of a hydra head if it is done in the absence of parallel medium and long-term initiatives for sustainable peace.

In dealing with governance as one of the root causes of the DRC conflict that allowed illegal mining to flourish, it may be worth revisiting the decentralisation agenda. Although many have dismissed the decentralisation proposal as unfeasible both economically and politically, the DRC remains an administrative challenge due to its sheer geographic size and weak State institutions. So whereas there may exist risks in the proposed decentralisation process contained in the Constitution, the existing alternative of a centralised government has so far failed. Decentralisation may yet provide an alternative springboard for post-conflict reconstruction with its promise to localise governance. One example is in the increased remittances to all provinces including a special allocation to the most disadvantaged provinces. This would improve infrastructure, access to social services and strengthen local administration giving Eastern DRC a better chance of resisting the negative forces of insecurity in the journey towards sustainable peace and development. The conflict minerals debate must be kept in perspective of deeper conflict transformation needs in the DRC.