NUMBI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Marie keeps her cash hidden in her “I love Jesus” hat, Samy in his socks. Selling gold and gemstones to other countries, the smugglers are small-time players in an illegal trade worth tens of millions of dollars hidden deep in Congo’s troubled wilderness.
New efforts to clamp down on Congo’s armed groups that finance their existence with minerals sourced from the country’s conflict-wracked east — much of which ends up in laptops, cell phones and jewellery around the world — have been criticised for trying to achieve the impossible and risking the livelihoods of a million people in the area who depend on mining.
“Suffering caused us to know how to do this work — there was nothing else I could find to do,” said mother-of-eight Marie as she crouched in a cramped mud hut near a mining village emptying a plastic bag of red and green stones, among them emeralds and tourmalines worth $3,500 (2,242 pounds).
New U.S. legislation requires companies sourcing from Congo and its nine neighbours to prove minerals such as tin and tungsten ores, coltan and gold are conflict-free, prompting some industry experts to say it may lead to a de facto embargo.
Lobby groups in the U.S. and U.K. argue ending Congo’s conflict minerals will help bring fighting that has displaced more than 1.45 million people in the east to an end, despite the large roles played by land, ethnicity and need for army reform.
Detractors say rebels and rogue soldiers will in any case trade whatever commodity they can find, whether coltan, timber, marijuana, charcoal or even cheese, raising the prospect of what Congo expert Nicholas Garrett calls “conflict cheese.”
Marie and Samy’s routes pass along 35 km (20 miles) of twisting rocky track, among banana trees and green hills, indicating how tough it is to track material on which armed men impose cash taxes and in-kind levies.
Officials at their artisanal mining site, Numbi, which is secured mostly by former militia group PARECO now integrated into the army, say streams of men leave the site every night smuggling 50-kg sacks, paid $4 as porters for the excrutiating trek.
They say the South Kivu centre’s biggest five buyers are all clandestine, sourcing minerals including cassiterite (tin ore), coltan, gold, tourmaline and manganese from the seven nearby mines, produced by more than 400 miners earning $30 a month.
“We have to hide what we sell to the black market because if the Congolese see us with all that we will be in trouble,” said Samy, not his real name, who smuggles across the border to Chinese, Indian and Senegalese clients in Rwanda and Kenya.
Smuggling routes are little-known, sold on via complex networks and pass through areas so insecure that United Nations peacekeepers cannot reach them. Experts say material passes between 20 hands and a dozen countries before its destination.
“Establishing oversight mechanisms will be immensely challenging,” said a May study from London-based Resource Consulting Services (RCS), which also said in 2009 that Rwanda’s Hutu FDLR rebels are 75 percent funded from minerals.
Several schemes are nevertheless putting pressure on Congo and companies making money from the trade to confirm their purchases are conflict-free, from a German geological fingerprinting scheme to tagging every sack’s origin.
ITRI, a tin lobby under pressure to show where its members source their purchases, started a pilot to tag all minerals at a large cassiterite mine 50 km (30 miles) away from Numbi, also in South Kivu, where Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels are active.
“We want to know how much is mined and how much of that ends up at the official exit points,” said Jean Marc Ntwali, a consultant working for ITRI on the ground, who said each 50-kg bag is tagged, along with nine forms documenting its travels.
Statistics from North Kivu’s mines division shows the high worth of such minerals: 4,569 tonnes of cassiterite worth $44 million and 98 tonnes of coltan worth $1.5 million were exported officially in the first six months of 2010.
In August, ITRI hopes to start tagging product at the Bisie mine in North Kivu, where thousands of artisanal workers produce more than 70 percent of the province’s cassiterite, transported in sacks through jungle paths for two days.
Tracking bulky bags is hard enough, let alone much more valuable and portable gold, which is easily moved unseen.
A U.N. panel of experts is due to recommend Congo’s mineral customers take greater responsibility for the chain of sale, in line with guidelines under development from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but it may not be enough.
“It is currently impossible to trace all gold exports effectively,” Nicholas Garrett, director of RCS, told Reuters. “The state is weak and underpaid state services are often implicated in gold smuggling along porous borders.”
Editing by Richard Valdmanis