Congo conflict mineral clampdown seen tough to enforce

by reuters | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 September 2010 16:35 GMT

* Congo govt will struggle to impose mining ban in east

* Key to stopping trade lies in curbing army involvement

By David Lewis

DAKAR, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Congo will struggle to enforce its new ban on mining in rebellious eastern areas and the move is likely to increase smuggling rather than help clean up an industry accused of fuelling conflict, analysts say.

Congo is under growing international pressure to stop armed groups profiting from mining, but analysts say a clampdown on so-called "conflict minerals" will be difficult because government troops are themselves heavily involved in the trade.

Congo's mines ministry issued a statement on Saturday banning the mining, processing and marketing of minerals in North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema provinces.

The region is rich in minerals such as gold, cassiterite and tantalum that end up in jewellery, laptops and cell phones. No major firms operate there, but small-scale mining employs thousands and has been linked to simmering conflicts.

"If there is a ban ... then I struggle to understand how they could actually enforce it on the ground," Simon Gilbert, and independent extractive industries consultant, told Reuters.

"It's virtually impossible to do so to any degree that makes it worthwhile."

Some 5 million people have died in the central African state since the start of a 1998-2003 war. Despite the official end of that war, government and U.N. forces are struggling to uproot myriad rebel groups that still roam the east, often fighting over control of mines.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation in July calling on companies to prove material extracted from Congo and its nine neighbours is "conflict free."

Congo's government said the ban had been put in place as mining was linked to "mafia-like" groups but many believe the ban is likely to push legal business to these very operators.

"Previous attempts at a ban have only increased smuggling," Harrison Mitchell, analyst from London-based Resource Consulting Services, told Reuters by telephone.

"It's all very well to say they want to get rid of the mafia in the mineral sector, but when the godfather is a powerful figure in Kinshasa it's less easy," he added, referring to what analysts say are indications that senior army officials are heavily involved in the trade.

A ban could also increase the likelihood of unrest in the region as tens of thousands of Congolese live off the mining industry, analysts say.

NEED TO TACKLE ARMY

During Congo's five-year conflict, which sucked in six neighbouring armies, all sides were accused of looting resources. Undisciplined government units, as well as rebels, are still accused of vying for control of minerals.

Daniel Balint-Kurti, Congo team leader at natural resource watchdog Global Witness, said the move could provide some breathing space to clean up the mining sector, but it was unclear how the government would enforce the ban.

"If the Congolese government is going to tackle conflict minerals it needs to tackle the issue of its own troops. The involvement of the Congolese army is very big," he said.

Fighters from the CNDD, a former rebel group now integrated into the army, was particularly involved in a trade that was earning fighters tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Rwanda, whose army has previously backed Congo's rebels and was accused of plunder in the war, has announced a plan to introduce a minerals tracing scheme to help buyers certify the origins and supply chain of tin and other ores.

But ITRI, a UK-based tin industry body, warned that the future of its project to improve transparency in Congo was now in doubt as a result of the ban. (Additional reporting by Hereward Holland in Nairobi; Editing by Lin Noueihed)

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