LUNTUKULU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO - Once a week, a huge, battered flatbed truck creaks its way down a mountain road and stops in this small village in eastern Congo, where the dirt track ends at a small army checkpoint.
The truck is driven by a couple of traders from Bukavu, the regional capital, a day's drive away. And when the traders arrive, the miners of Luntukulu come forward with what they have to sell: small piles of loose rock, some of them gleaming with shiny yellow threads: wolframite, or tungsten ore, bound for industrial use in Europe. The traders pay the miners $6 (U.S.) a kilogram, which works out to about $8 for a week's work, and then pile the ore in the back of the truck.
Then they do something else. "The vehicle stops here, but the traders continue on foot, and they take labourers with them to carry out what they will buy," said Pierre Beningabo, who spends his days in a shallow cave chiselling for the dull glint of wolframite.
The traders walk five kilometres along a dirt track to the next village, he and many local miners said, and there they buy more minerals - this time, from soldiers of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), one of 23 different armed groups in eastern Congo who have worked to bring this region back to war once again.
Congo's long-running war feeds on mining money. An estimated five million people have died in this conflict, which nominally ended in a peace deal in 2003, but which never really went away in the east. The war has roared back into life in recent weeks; at least 850,000 people are now displaced in the east and thousands of women have been victim of the war's signature tactic, public gang rape.
Congo's war is often linked, in vague terms, to the mineral trade, but here in Luntukulu, it is easy to see exactly how it works: the industry is essentially unregulated, smuggling is simple to do and rife, and no one has any incentive to try to drive the armed militias out of the business. "The armed groups are all involved in mining - even our Congolese armed forces," sighed Juvenal Nyamugusha, who heads the provincial mining ministry.
The FLDR, for instance - made up of the remnants of the Interahamwe, who carried out the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and some new Congolese and Rwandan recruits - controls vast swaths of territory in this region of Congo, and there is no confusion about how they chose the land they seized. "The mineral areas, the FDLR are only in mineral areas - they are there where you find tin or coltan or wolframite," said Joseph Kakez, the administrator for this district, which is dotted with patches of rich mines, and rebel groups.
Here, near Luntukulu, the militia members dig in particular for coltan, or tantalite, the mineral that goes into making cellphones, laptop computers and Sony PlayStations. And they sell to the traders, who have the ore carried back out to their trucks back up at the village checkpoint - after paying $40 a kilogram. And so the Interahamwe, or what remains of it, is wealthier and more powerful than it was 14 years ago, when the killing ended in Rwanda.
"The FDLR are the ones controlling the coltan mines and they are very strong," said Mr. Beningabo, the miner. The provincial mining ministry says the FDLR, in fact, controls 20 per cent of mining here.
A squad of Congolese army soldiers are posted in Luntukulu to, in theory, isolate the Rwandan rebels. In reality, the checkpoint serves as a handy place for the soldiers to collect bribes from those who carry the minerals out of the militia's territory. "We pay at every checkpoint coming and going: Every person who crosses pays 500 francs [about $1]. It's not official but the province and district authorities know it," said Olivier Mugaruka, who travels the rough roads of this region to buy tin, tungsten and coltan.
The soldiers also take a cut out of everything hauled out by legitimate miners such as Mr. Beningabo - an informal tax just like the 10 per cent he must pay to his village chief.
And that's just small scale. In the next province of North Kivu, the infamous 85th brigade of the Congolese armed forces controls a huge cassiterite mine at Bisie, where it forces the local population to work. Although Congolese civil society organizations and media have repeatedly shown that the brigade controls the mine - and pockets the revenue from it - work continues undisturbed, and the tin is exported through both legal and illegal channels.
"We can only conclude that these activities are sanctioned at the highest levels," said Patrick Alley, director of the British-based organization Global Witness, which has made extensive study of Congo's mineral industry.
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The profit to be had from mining - either from selling minerals, or "taxing" the trade - means the army (most of whose soldiers have not been paid in years by the central government in Kinshasa) has no incentive to move against the rebels, despite having pledged in multiple peace accords to do so. The rebels have no interest in moving either. "The FDLR have consolidated their economic base," Mr. Alley said. "Their trading activities have become an end in themselves. They have set up such efficient and lucrative business networks that they have little incentive to leave."
So each group insists it can't demobilize while its various enemies are still encamped, and each works to defend and expand its territory - especially now, as crashing metal prices force them to increase output.
Organizations such as Global Witness have repeatedly called on mineral buyers, both local and international, to stop dealing with Congolese rebel forces. But Mark Patzelt, an Austrian who runs Skapa Mining & Trading, a tin ore export company (known as a comptoir) in Goma, insisted he has no way of knowing which of the minerals that traders bring to him have been extracted by legal miners. "How can I tell who is legitimate?" he asked. "When it gets to me, it's changed hands so many times, and the trader will tell me anything I want to hear, that he bought from legitimate sources."
Mr. Mugaruka, the Bukavu-based trader, is a good illustration of the problem. He insists, in a first discussion, that he buys only from ordinary miners, that dealing with the rebels is too dangerous. When pressed, however, he eventually admits that in order to survive in his small-scale business, which barely feeds and clothes his family, he must go where the quality minerals are, and the rebel groups working in the bush are happy to sell to him in exchange for salt or cloth he brings in.
One way to ensure the comptoir is not buying illegal minerals - blood tin, as it were - would be, of course, to stop trading here entirely. But Mr. Patzelt said that waiting for the conflict to end, before working in mining in Congo, is unrealistic. "It's not as easy as, 'Get out of the business and wait.' There's a huge investment here: half a million dollars. We opened up in 2006 and started making losses. You can't just pack up and walk out of here - you have to continue until you get out of the loss."
Owners say that a comptoir operating in Goma or Bukavu typically pays "fees" to no fewer than 14 different branches of government, including the secret police. The finance ministry demands 30 per cent of the value of what they export; the mining ministry takes 10 per cent.
But a huge quantity of Congo's minerals are not exported that way. Traders work with smugglers to take them out through Rwanda - either in small boats across Lake Kivu, or in trucks of "tomatoes" that cross the land borders. Border guards, who officially earn about $40 a month, are rarely paid, and so for a small fee they are happy not to search below the top layer of tomatoes or charcoal. It costs about $350 to smuggle out a tin shipment that costs $17,000 to send legally, exporters said. "Everyone knows - the cassiterite comes from [this region] and goes to Bukavu and on to Rwanda directly," said Mr. Kakez, the administrator. "Rwanda has no minerals in its own soil, but look at the list of its exports each year. So many minerals."
And everyone in government knows exactly how this chain - of rebel miners, assisted by the military, smuggling out to Rwanda - works, and plenty are profiting from it, he said. "Their incentive is to maintain the informal minerals trade; that's their way of staying rich."
Mr. Nyamugusha, the provincial mining minister, agreed that "there's a very large amount of fraud" and said he believes that 200 to 300 kilograms of gold leaves his province each month, in small quantities, for Rwanda and Uganda. The official export of gold? None.
The minister believes the solution for gradually isolating the rebel groups and expanding the legitimate mining industry is investment by companies such as Canada's Banro Corp., which hopes to start operations here at several sites next year. The international companies will employ people (including the demobilized former rebel soldiers who are tempted back to illegal activity because they have no way of supporting themselves) and they will provide security around their operations, and enlist the help of local communities, Mr. Nyamugusha said. "The hope for the country is industrial exploitation like Banro's," he said.
But Mr. Patzelt said he wonders how many companies will be up to the challenge Banro has taken on. "The only solution for these regions is a serious inflow of capital and infrastructure," he said. "But in order to do that you need electricity, water, legal security. Who is going to invest millions of dollars ... without that?"