Open Season for Looting
Windhoek – Prolonged control of Goma, the DRC’s strategic eastern border city with Rwanda, by rebel forces is a boon for illegal mining activities and illicit flow of some of the world’s most sought-after minerals.
Should the rebels maintain their control of Goma, the capital of mineral-rich North Kivu, all gains made over the years in stamping out illegal mining activities and plugging illicit trade in minerals could be reversed.
Goma fell to a rebel movement calling itself M23 over a week ago and there are currently little prospects that the city on the shores of Lake Kivu will return to the authority of Kinshasa any time soon.
Goma has always been the key transit point for minerals laundered from the DRC’s traditionally volatile eastern regions.
Reports say that Bunagana town on the DRC border with Uganda, Rutshuru town, a key trading post and Goma, which are all in the mineral-rich Masisi territory in North Kivu, are currently under rebel control.
This has stoked fears that efforts by the DRC government and its international partners aimed at curbing the illicit flow of some of the world’s most strategic minerals from the eastern region – such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, coltan, cassiterite, gold and diamond – will flounder.
Dieudonne-Louis Tambwe, who is the deputy co-ordinator in the DRC’s Ministry of Mines, said that while the government still exercises control over mining activities and trade in minerals, laws could be difficult to enforce if rebels continue to maintain their control of the vital eastern regions.
“The DRC government has a strategy to tackle smuggling but if this situation lasts for a month or two, it will have serious impact on trading in minerals in the area,” Tambwe said.
He said that the government and the international community had all along been waiting to see the results of initiatives put in place to clamp down on minerals smuggling.
One of this is mineral tagging, which ensures that all minerals sourced are conflict-free in a manner similar to Kimberly Process Certification for diamonds.
The idea is to ensure minerals do not fund armed conflicts.
Minerals from war zones are therefore not allowed to enter supply chains. Rebels in the DRC have been found to launder illicit minerals through Rwanda and Uganda to the extent that the latter two countries have recorded huge gold sales in recent years and yet they do not have any significant deposits of the precious metal.
In October, a conflict free tin initiative (CFTI) was formally launched at a cassiterite mine in South Kivu.
“We need time to see how these strategies are paying off.
“Our attitude has been 'let us give these initiatives some time and analyse the results,' Tambwe said.
The DRC government in September this year said that rebels were smuggling minerals through Rwanda and wrote to the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) asking Washington to prohibit American companies from buying minerals through that country.
“To put an end to this (rebel) situation, one of the solutions would be to impose an embargo on all minerals coming from Rwanda, until the establishment of a lasting peace in the provinces of North and South Kivu,” DRC Minister of Mines Martin Kabwelulu wrote to SEC in September.
Tambwe said most mining activities in the eastern DRC are conducted by artisanal miners who pan for gold, tin, tantalum, tungsten, cassiterite and coltan.
DRC ranks as the continent’s top tin producer; it also comes second in copper production after Zambia in Africa.
In addition, the country holds large deposits of rare earth minerals that are vital for industries in Asia, Europe and China.
Tambwe said that “a psychological market reaction” to the conflict “could drive up demand and even prices”.
“We had made some progress to monitor minerals smuggling and we just needed some more time. We were witnessing the change on the ground.
“I don’t want to comment on the security issues but if this goes for more than two, three months, monitoring efforts would be difficult,” Tambwe said.
The DRC is home to 80 percent of the world’s cobalt, a well sought after mineral used in modern technologies including weapons, cellphones and computers.
The vast country is also the world’s third-largest producer of tantalum, used in high-tech electronics, nuclear power, computers and mobile phones. It also contains vast and largely untapped deposits of oil, gold, diamonds, copper and uranium among other minerals.
Analysts say that with demand for tantalum the world-over far outstripping supply, fuelled by rapidly developing high tech industries, the mineral is becoming more profitable than gold or diamonds.
For countries which border DRC such as Rwanda – which has been previously accused of exporting laundered minerals – control of tantalum deposits is an opportunity for an economic breakthrough, observers say.