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Money From Stone: Congo's Troubled Tin Mines

By Lane Hartill

Jules had been hiking all day, slipping his way down the trail to Ndjingala. He pushed leaves as big as dinner plates out of his eyes and shifted the 115 pounds of rocks in the mesh sack on his head. For long stretches of time, all Jules heard was the soft panting of the group of 15 men and the sucking sound of the mud underfoot.

A man holds up tin ore

A man holds up tin ore that was dug at Bisiyé, one of Congo's most contested mines. At Bisiyé, some miners stay underground for 2 to 3 weeks at a time. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

These rocks—heavy with tin ore, known as cassiterite here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—were going to feed Jules' family for a week. But only if he made it to the end of the trail. He'd get a buck a mile: $25 for 25 miles. He was in the home stretch now, only a mile to go. Please, he thought, let the trail be clear. Please, no more roadblocks. Or bandits.

He knew the tricks of the trade: Don't leave the trail, bandits lurk in the bush. Don't get separated from the group of transporters, stragglers are easy targets. Don't stop, not for anything. At the checkpoints, he knew to keep his head down and hand over the few bucks to the men with guns. Whatever you do, don't ask questions. And don't draw attention to yourself.

But then it happened: Word came down the line that a transporter up ahead had been shot at, told to hand over his rocks. The man, stupidly, argued with the men in balaclavas and military garb. Who knows if they were rogue soldiers or bandits. That's when the shooting started. And that had Jules worried.

Jules had started the day before in Bisiyé, a tin ore mine in eastern Congo's North Kivu province. The mine swells with thousands of Congolese from every corner of the country. From high school teachers to grade-school dropouts to army commanders to housewives, all are willing to hike to Bisiyé—estimates have the population there between 12,000 to 14,000—because they know cassiterite means cash.

Demand for 'Tainted Tin'

Since 2002, when Japan and the European Union banned the use of lead-based solder in electronic equipment, tin has become the mineral of choice for soldering. The price rose with demand and has reached record levels. In April, it reached $19,000 a ton on the international market.

On an average day, more than 20 tons of cassiterite from Bisiyé leaves by airplane from Kilambo, a nearby village.

Small planes land on a stretch of paved road. Men in jumpsuits unload water and biscuits from the plane for local shops. Then they load the plane with more than a ton of cassiterite. All of this happens in about 15 minutes. On an average day, 10 to 15 planes land at Kilambo. The mineral is then flown to middlemen in Goma. From there it makes its way to refineries around the world.

Bisiyé is a cash cow for armed groups, who have controlled it since 2004. Miners, paid but seriously exploited by the armed groups, work in hazardous conditions, with many dying in fragile mine shafts. Through a complex hierarchy, miners work for days at a time—some will stay for weeks in the mine without leaving—in humid, dangerous conditions.

Congo's tainted tin hasn't dampened world demand for it or for other minerals. Tantalum, often used to store electricity in iPods and cell phones, also comes from Congo. So does tungsten, which helps make Blackberries vibrate. International companies are scrambling to get their hands on this stuff. And one of the places they often look to is Congo.

The exploitation of miners and the financing of armed groups have led Catholic Relief Services to support the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. The financial reform bill, which was recently signed into law by President Obama, contained provisions regarding conflict minerals in Congo drawn from both of these bills. It requires companies registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission to report on what they are doing to assure that the metals they use in their products are not financing violence in the eastern Congo. It will also allow companies to label goods as "conflict mineral–free."

"The working conditions in the mines are appalling," says Olun Kamitatu, CRS' extractives expert, who is from the Congo. "They have no protective gear, no work contracts, no schedules, and no health care insurance. Lethal accidents happen frequently with no recourse for family members. Even when they make it safely, they are at the mercy of mine supervisors who take percentages of the rocks extracted and find countless reasons for not paying them."

Fleeing Home, Finding Work

Jules' nightmare started one night in Nyabiondo, a small town in the east of the country. Six months ago, around 2 a.m., a rebel group showed up in the village. Jules knew that if they caught him they would kill him.

Jules with his family

Jules Hangi and his wife Bauma Nkuba were chased from their home village in eastern Congo. Jules carries ore on his head 25 miles from a nearby mine to the town of Ndjingala. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

He escaped out the back of the house, and left Bauma, his wife, staring wide-eyed at the angry gunmen as they kicked in the front door. They marched her and other kidnapped women through the forest for a day. For the next month, she was held captive.

The gunmen burned their village black. Jules lost everything, including one of his children and a niece who had been staying with them; both were killed in the crossfire. People were moving toward Ndjingala, where word had it that money could be made in the mines. So Jules left with the clothes on his back and his children in tow.

He started working as a hired hand on a cassava farm. He was paid $25 to farm about 2.5 acres. That's not much in a place where a whole chicken costs $10 and malaria treatment at the clinic is close to $25. He wasn't used to being the children's caregiver, either. There was no clean water for the kids. Latrines were rare.

Thoughts of Bauma filled his head, and he wasn't sure he'd ever see her again. But he held out hope: He knew that many women escaped from the rebels. He just hoped she would find him here.

Jules started hanging around the cassiterite junction, where the trail from Bisiyé meets Ndjingala. He soon found work, and was tripping and sliding up the trail to Bisiyé.

But he quickly learned that the buyers and middlemen were more slippery than the trail.

When he picks up his cassiterite at Bisiyé, Jules has to guess the weight of the loads; there is no scale. He isn't paid unless he brings at least 110 pounds to the buyer in Ndjingala. If he's an ounce under, he receives nothing. So he overcompensates, knowing that he's carrying more, but worried he won't be paid unless he does.

When he hauls it down the trail, he runs into checkpoints. He doesn't know if the men in military uniforms are really military. Some are. Some are thieves. He doesn't ask questions, he just hands over the money at the checkpoint (usually a dollar or so) and moves on. As long as they don't take his rocks, he's fine.

But these taxes go to finance the armed groups. Miners and transporters says taxes vary, but can cost anywhere between $5 to $10 total for the trip between Ndjingala and Bisiyé. Given the number of transporters on the trail, the fees quickly add up. But the taxes aren't where the big money is. The cassiterite, which sells for $4.50 per kilogram in Ndjingala, is where the real money can be made. Hundreds of tons leave Ndjingala each month, which can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits for armed groups controlling the mine. Local Congolese say that profits from cassiterite are distributed to scores of Congolese military leaders and government officials.

Family Reunites

Back in the rebel camp, after a month of cooking and washing and whispering to other kidnapped women, Bauma made her break. She went to the creek to fetch water. But this time, she just kept going. She worked her way through the forest and hustled back to civilization. She got word that Jules was in Ndjingala, so she started walking. She walked for 2 straight weeks. Just like her husband had done, she begged for food and slept in the churches and schools.

When she arrived in Ndjingala, Jules wasn't hard to find. He was staying with the others from Nyabiondo. Jules was outside of the crumbling mud house, talking with the kids. The kids ran up and hugged her. Jules kissed her. "I'm sorry this happened to you," Jules told her. Bauma just held him.

The family is back together now. And Jules has a job. As long as his neck can stand it, he'll keep hauling cassiterite. It will bring in just enough money to feed the 5 kids and Bauma until things calm down in Nyabiondo and they can return.

But for now, he just wants to rest. He's had cassiterite on his mind for the last 2 days. He slept on the trail last night at a restaurant—one of the many shacks that line the trail—and waited out the bandits.

He stumbled into Ndjingala this morning with sagging eyes, a throbbing back and pruned feet: If you wear boots, the rogue soldiers on the trail will steal them.

Right now he's tired of talking about cassiterite. In fact, he doesn't see what's so special about it. He doesn't know what they use it for in Europe or the United States, and doesn't really care. He just knows that it hurts his back and everyone wants a part of it here.

For now, he just wants to get off his feet, play with his kids and spend some quality time with Bauma.

Lane Hartill is CRS' regional information officer for central and western Africa. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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