What is the Congo used for?

Battle for the Congo treasures

The curse of the rich soil

The DR Congo is often referred to as the most resource-rich country in the world. Until the 1960s, the mining and export of mineral resources such as gold, diamonds, copper and oil were the main financial pillar of the Congolese economy. At that time, parts of the population lived under relatively acceptable circumstances, despite poor working conditions.

The largest mining company, "Gécamines", was instrumental in supplying the workers. The company built entire cities with schools, hospitals, roads, and power supplies.

This state of affairs only lasted until dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who ruled from 1965 to 1997, nationalized the mining companies. He stopped investing in the mines and pocketed the profits himself.

To this day, the raw materials lead to major conflicts between population groups, rebel leaders, the state, the military, western companies and the neighboring states.

Economic interests become the mainspring or trigger for armed conflict. High-yield areas are bitterly contested. Whoever has the area has power over the raw materials - and thus the profit.

Coltan - war for modern technology

Producers need coltan for every cell phone, every computer and every digital camera. The ore and its metallic elements niobium and tantalum have become indispensable for particularly fine electronics. Tantalum is also becoming increasingly important in medical technology. Since it breaks down slowly and is chemically very sluggish, it is used for dental implants, bone nails and prostheses.

In the east of the DR Congo, in the province of Kivu, there is an estimated 80 percent of the world's coltan deposits. The ore is stored just below the surface, anyone can mine it armed with a shovel. When the price of coltan rose sharply in the mid-1990s, entire streams of locals moved to the Kivu region.

Of course, the states bordering the mining area also recognized the value of the ore. Since dismantling began, half a million Congolese soldiers have died fighting for the Kivu region against troops from Rwanda and Uganda and against militias.

The environment also suffers from coltan degradation. Workers cut down large areas of rainforest to dig and set up camps. In doing so, they destroy the habitat of the endangered mountain gorillas that live in the particularly species-rich rainforest of the Virunga volcanoes. Elephants, big cats and small mammals are also losing their homes.

Methane - dangerous gas

In Lake Kivu, on the border between the DR Congo and Rwanda, huge amounts of a highly toxic mixture of methane gas and carbon dioxide are stored. It is found in the lowest layers of the water and in the rock below.

This poses an immediate danger to the living beings in the vicinity of the lake. If the pressure on the bottom of the lake drops for any reason, or if the water is saturated and no longer absorbs new gas, the gas could suddenly escape and suffocate people and animals in the vicinity.

Another danger is the nearby Nyiragongo volcano, which last erupted in 2002 and remained active because gas and fire are known to be an explosive mixture.

Rwanda's government has turned danger into a source of energy. At the edge of the lake, conveyor systems were set up that bring the gas to the surface in a controlled manner and convert it into electricity. A local brewery on the shores of Lake Kivu has been getting its electricity from the gas mixture for more than 40 years.

Various long-term studies on site try to estimate the ecological and political hazard potential of gas production. It is questionable, for example, whether there could be further territorial disputes over the Kivu region, especially since the coltan reserves are also located in this region. This makes the area doubly interesting for the neighboring countries as well as for militia groups and international investors.

According to the studies, it is difficult to estimate the ecological and geological consequences that could result from a reduction in pressure at the bottom of the lake. It is likely that the equilibrium of Lake Kivu, which has arisen over millions of years, will change significantly in a short time.

Gold mining is poisoning the population

Gold has been mined in large quantities in the Congo since the end of the 17th century, when Portugal and later Belgium colonized the area. The then Kingdom of the Congo was exploited because of its huge gold reserves and the population enslaved. Different powers fought over and over for the areas with gold reserves.

A 2003 report by the United Nations (UN) counts around 50 large international companies that are exploiting the gold reserves of the DR Congo. The ecological consequences for the mining areas are devastating: Large areas of rainforest are cut down and entire biotopes are destroyed.

Huge mines perforate the whole country, and the processing of the gold, some of which is done on site, has a significant impact on the environment. When leaching gold, cyanide and mercury are used, both of which are powerful neurotoxins. As a result, more and more children with disabilities are being born in the mining areas.

Blood diamonds

The DR Congo is the third largest diamond producer in the world after Russia and Botswana. Most of the valuable rough diamonds are mined by hand by workers.

The DR Congo is trying to make the diamond trade a secure pillar of its national budget, but the world market price for the precious stones is subject to very large fluctuations. In addition, the permanently disorganized and divided government has often been an easy victim for exploitative foreign investors.

Some of the diamonds are not even legally traded. Diamonds are very small and therefore relatively easy to mine, smuggle and sell. The areas where they occur are controlled by rebels. Through their brutal treatment of the workers and the bloody fights in connection with the diamond trade, the term "blood diamonds" was coined.

The end user can hardly control the circumstances under which the stone for his piece of jewelry was mined and sold.

Anarchy in the Congo - the Katanga region

The DR Congo could be the richest country in Africa because of its natural resources. According to UN reports, however, there is no functioning and organized government that is free from corruption and exploitative interests.

An example of the poor management of raw materials is the Katanga copper region, where industrial ore mining completely collapsed under the dictator Mobutu. Here alone, in the richest mining area in the world, copper, cobalt, germanium and uranium can be mined.

In Katanga you don't see any functioning machines, but digging is going on everywhere. The former miners and many children and young people who have moved here serve themselves. In the hope of a better life, they become dependent on the militias and smugglers who control the area.

It is estimated that two million people in the DR Congo are still dependent on ASM today. This "artisanal" mining - without significant technical support - accounts for almost all of the raw material production for the domestic economy.