Mining The Peace
This is not the first article on the tin ore mines of eastern Congo, nor will it be the last. As long as the grinding Congolese conflict- which took a surprise turn earlier this month when Rwandan troops allied themselves with the Congolese army to arrest warlord Laurent Nkunda- continues to throb, even at the simmering point at which it currently sits, mining will play an often unscrupulous role.
Cassiterite, or tin ore, has been the mineral of choice in the Kivu area in eastern Congo since it was discovered in 2002. It took only months after its discovery by a hunter in the remote jungle mountains for these reserves- one of many in the massive country- to spark a mineral rush that has helped to fuel the feverish in-fighting ever since. Though it is a much less valuable cousin to coltan- used for components in cell phones and computers, and also an extractive boon to the Congo- cassiterite, until recently, had avoided much of the stigma associated with its sale. While coltan profits have been called by the British newsweekly First Post "a curse [that] provokes and intensifies conflict", cassiterite was largely ignored because of its inferior quality and lower market price. Mining bosses in the Congo had even gone so far as to label their coltan shipments as cassiterite, reaping the benefits of lesser scrutiny and lower export taxes.
With cassiterite gaining in profile thanks to scrutiny from journalists and civil society groups concerned that the ore is becoming a major component in electronics as tin solder replaces lead, a new Congolese mineral variety will likely enter into the world market in the coming months. What will not be undone so quickly, if at all, is the intense poverty, artificially inflated dictatorial economies, and environmental degradation that accompanies the extractive mining. In a 2001 report for the World Conservation Union, David Sheppard reported that over 10,000 miners had moved into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a population pressure that quickly turned elephants and gorilla into bushmeat staples. Today, the scene is little different- ITRI, a global expert on tin production, classified the majority of the mines as "suitable only for artesinal exploitation." These artesinal mines- small, hand-dug operations that are usually located on river beds- are major contributors to erosion and water degradation. Most damaging are the byproducts- the tailings- that are left after the minerals have been extracted, which usually end up poured back into rivers, where they leach mercury and other toxins into the water table. Villagers and even the miners themselves must often rely upon these same sources of water to drink, and therefore ingest the poisons.
Reports from the eastern mining regions indicate that many of the local "big men" once associated with Nkunda are leery of relinquishing their control over their mining interests. Forthcoming research from Nicholas Garrett and Resource Consulting Services indicates that this war profiteering "and its mechanisms of exploitation...can largely survive in peacetime conditions." The environmental impact of these decades of resource extraction has remained largely hidden under the fog of war, but it has likely left scars that will take just as many years to heal.
-Equatorial Press Staff Report. Photo Courtesy of Terry Ridley/IRIN.