Congolese Miners: In the Trenches of the Conflict-Free Mineral Movement

Miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who suffer arduous living conditions and a history of violence and oppression, see the impact as conflict-free supply chain policies take hold.

With a stunning geography of tropical rainforest, savanna, lush grasslands and mountains teeming with minerals, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a place of dramatic contradiction.

While this large Central African country – about a quarter the size of the U.S. – is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, its history of colonialism, violence, slavery and political corruption has left it marred with appalling poverty and conflict seemingly too tangled to ever unravel.

Although its history has been marred by near-constant violence in the region, the DRC experienced it most crushing devastation during the five-year conflict from 1998 to 2003 that pitted government forces against rebels in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.

The war resulted in 6 million deaths in the DRC – from the fighting, disease and malnutrition that ensued. People fled, leaving once-thriving farmland and villages to be destroyed by plundering militias.

Of the 67.5 million people in the DRC, some 70 percent live in dire poverty.

Although the war ended, simmering violence remained. Slowly, former farmers and miners returned to the DRC to work in the mines, which are abundant in minerals like tin, tungsten, gold and tantalum – so-called “conflict minerals” because, for decades their extraction helped fund militant violence and human rights atrocities.

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These minerals are used to build most of our technology, and are prevalent in many household items we use in our everyday lives.

While much work remains, with the continued commitment of Intel and its partners to create conflict-free policies, many mining communities have experienced a reduced presence of armed groups.

While it might’ve been easier to source minerals from other parts of the world, Intel has committed to staying in the region, to help restructure the supply chain and help create a path for minerals to be conflict-free.

Intel wanted to understand what conditions were like in the trenches of the mines, so a team went to the Congo to interview the miners themselves.

“This work is not easy; it is very difficult,” said Richard Bwira Kaningu, 37, a miner in Nzibira. “To extract the cassiterite from the pit, we typically use shovels, iron bars and hammers.”

He explained that the cassiterite — the ore from which tin is extracted — is buried in hard rock. Miners use rudimentary tools to break the rock, remove it from the pit and then break it down with a hammer.

“Later on, we clean everything, in order to separate the stone from the actual minerals.  The minerals are then put into a sack and placed in the sunlight to keep it dry.  Finally, we bring the packaged minerals to be tagged and then we go to sell.”

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Kaningu has 18 dependents: his deceased father’s nine children, four of his own, his sister’s three children and his polygamist father’s two wives.

He says that mining is dangerous, that miners commonly get injured by falling rock. “But we have no choice.  We have to be strong and work hard so that we may bring home the daily bread for our families.”

Ukamilifu Jean-Marie Maheshe manages two pits in a cassiterite mine. He said during the five-year war, the country basically stopped functioning all together.

“For years we had to keep running away while the entire country was nearly destroyed,” he said. “People could not trade or farm—you couldn’t sleep there was nothing to eat. We would sleep in the bush.”

He became a miner because it believed it was the only way to feed his family and one day hope to school his four children. But the miners are still trying to dig out of subsistence living.

“A miner today does not work for profit – he works for his daily food,” he said. “Our life is not good at all but there is nothing else we can do, so we decide to go on digging. When the prices finally go up I will be happy with my job.”

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Change in the region is arduous and slow to take hold, but miners have seen their wages incrementally increase, in some mines threefold. In the past, a miner would hope to get around US$2 for a kilogram of cassiterite (about 2.2 lbs). Now, Maheshe says, he makes about US$5.

Tin, tungsten and tantalum that do not go through conflict-free programs now sell for 30 to 60 percent less, thus reducing profits for armed groups trying to sell them. As a result, armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines.

The miners agree that the “bag and tag” system, whereby every piece of mined ore validated as conflict-free within the region is traceable back to its source, is hugely beneficial.

“If this tagging system is implemented throughout our country, our hope is that poverty will decrease, says Maheshe.

The irony that the minerals mined in the DRC are used to make cellular telephones and other electronics is not lost on the miners, who would love nothing more than to have a viable cellular network and a means of communicating.

“The Congolese have rights that have to respected,” said Maheshe. “I want to inform the world that the DRC needs its population to somehow profit from the fruits of its soil.”

Twenty-one companies now source from 16 conflict-free mines in Congo, in contrast to one conflict-free mine that was operating in 2011. Living conditions are slowly improving. Communities near conflict-free mining projects experience a greatly reduced presence of armed groups and hospitals and schools are starting to be built in those areas.


“Conflict free” and “conflict-free” means “DRC conflict free”, which is defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules to mean products that do not contain conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and/or gold) that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries. We also use the term “conflict-free” in a broader sense to refer to suppliers, supply chains, smelters and refiners whose sources of conflict minerals do not finance conflict in the DRC or adjoining countries.


Related Stories:

Why Conflict-Free Matters in Your Everyday Life

What Intel is Doing in the Congo: Working to Make Products Conflict-Free

Will You Choose a Conflict Free Microprocessor for Your Next Device?

Helter Smelter No More: Moving to Conflict-Free Minerals

Intel’s Plans To Build A Conflict-Free Supply Chain By 2016

Better Future Series: Mining Minerals, Extracting Conflict



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