Monday, August 08, 2011

Catastrophe in the Congo; of American making

One obscure provision in the US Wall Street market bailout law has had a big impact on theRepublic of Congo economy. A Sunday op-ed piece in the New York Times says that the provision has harmed the fortunes of the most vulnerable in the Congo.

The author of the op-ed is David Aronson, a freelance writer who blogs at Congo Resources. Aronson says that one part of the Frank-Dodd act of 2010 has hurt small miners in the DRC. Companies now must make sure that minerals they buy for computers and cell phones don't benefit the warlords of the Congo. The law has had an unintended effect of stopping mining operations in the Congo. Many poor laborers depended on their mining jobs for a small income.

From the New York Times piece, Aronson traveled to the Congo to illustrate the harmful effects of the law.

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.

The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped. No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords — especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals. It’s easier to sidestep Congo than to sort out the complexities of Congolese politics — especially when minerals are readily available from other, safer countries.

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.

The pastor at one church told me that women were giving birth at home because they couldn’t afford the $20 or so for the maternity clinic. Children are dropping out of school because parents can’t pay the fees. Remote mining towns are virtually cut off from the outside world because the planes that once provisioned them no longer land. Most worrying, a crop disease periodically decimates the region’s staple, cassava. Villagers who relied on their mining income to buy food when harvests failed are beginning to go hungry.

Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.

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