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April 15, 2002

Coltan Mining a Continued Threat in Rainforest

Two researchers from the Belgian International Peace Information Service recently presented results of their report “Supporting the War Economy in the DRCongo: European Companies and the Coltan Trade” before the Belgian Senate Commission of Inquiry. The Commission was set up in November of last year to investigate the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This latest report documents the involvement of foreign companies in the coltan trade of rebel-controlled territories in eastern DRC, noting that the occupying military forces of Uganda and Rwanda sustain and exacerbate the civil war in order to gain control over mineral-rich areas of DRC. Often these foreign agents are then the primary contacts for Western businesses engaged in the coltan trade. The report recommends an immediate embargo on the importation of all natural resources, particularly coltan, originating from those countries participating in the civil war of DRC.

Coltan is a highly valuable mineral derived from the unrefined ore, colombo tantalite, and is used as a hardening agent in the production of many modern technological devices, including cell phones and fax machines. Uganda, Rwanda and DRC account for three of the top six nations involved in the $1 billion trade which supply the mineral to the United States. As demand for the product increases in Western markets, coltan mining has become an increasingly lucrative activity and thousands have joined the fierce competition over resource control in mineral-rich DRC. Miners from all over Central Africa have poured into the tropical forests to set up camps, causing irreparable damage to the environment and indigenous communities who depend on it for their livelihoods. Deforestation has occurred at an exponential rate, precious water sources have been contaminated, and wildlife has all but disappeared in the region as miners rely on “bushmeat” as their primary source of sustenance. Not only does this destruction of the forest ecosystem pose serious obstacles to the abilities of indigenous communities residing in the forest to sustain their subsistence activities, but they are further threatened by the ever-present dangers of warfare and disease brought into their homelands by outsiders.

The Mbuti pygmies have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in Congo’s northeastern rainforests for thousands of years. Their knowledge of forest resources is intimate and extensive, as they have sustainably harvested its products since prehistoric times. Known for their small stature and their polyphonic vocal traditions, Mbuti pygmies face profound acculturation forces in the present political chaos of DRC. As the civil war rages on and military forces grapple over natural resources, indigenous Mbuti stand to lose the most. If the forest is not conserved, their unique way of life may be lost forever.