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ICE Case Studies
Number 88, December, 2001, Year

Congo War and the Role of Coltan

Natalie D. Ware

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formally Zaire, is complex, complicated by the struggle for power over the country's vast resources by actors within and outside Congo. In recent years, one particular mineral, coltan, has been at the center of the fight. The precious ore is mined in rebel-controlled areas at the expense of national parks and depletion of wildlife. Coltan is a key element in cell phones, computer chips, nuclear reactors, and PlayStations. The market for the mineral has greatly increased in recent years, exacerbating conflict in Congo.

2. Description

Historical background

Congo received its independence from Belgium in 1960, leaving a politically and economically poor country with civil war breaking out soon after. General Joseph Mobutu took over in 1965, led the country through one political and economic disaster after another, and changed the name to Zaire in an attempt to promote "African authenticity" (EIU 2000: 4-5). With the end of the Cold War, economic devastation, and continued political oppression, international criticism and pressure forced Mobutu to accept a multi-party political system. Repression and corruption were rampant despite international pressure. Elections were promised but never held and revolution broke out. In 1997, while Mobutu died of cancer in exile, Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) leader, Laurent Kabila claimed Kinshasa, the capital, declaring himself president and renaming the country the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son, also Laurent Kabila is the current President. (CRS 2001: 1, 5).


Ethnic tensions, economic deprivation and interests, and foreign involvement are elements in the complexity of the Congo's civil war. The International Rescue Committee reports that between August 1998 and April 2001 approximately 2.5 million people have died due to the conflict (2001). Ethnic hostilities, primarily in the eastern part of DRC, led to the civil war that broke out in 1996. During Mobutu's rule, discrimination, economic degradation, and campaigns against the Tutsi people increased. The influx of Hutu refugees from the Rwandan conflict in 1994 only exacerbated existing ethnic tensions (CRS 8-9). The Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the interahamwe, gained control over much of the eastern part of the DRC and Kabila was unable to resolve the problem. Rwanda and Uganda entered the conflict in 1998 to back a Congolese Tutsi rebel movement. The conflict in the DRC quickly erupted into a six nation conflict when Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola intervened in support of the government. The Lusaka Peace Accord was signed by the six nations in Lusaka, Zambia in July 1999. Fighting quickly broke out again. The United Nations Security Council deployed 50 UN military observers and 5000 troops in January 2000 to the DRC (EIU 6-8). Fighting continues today with atrocities committed by all actors.


In many ways, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been an ethnic war, but also a war over mineral resources. The DRC has vast wealth of minerals, particularly diamonds, coltan, cassiterite, tin, and copper. Coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, is essential for the power-storing parts of cell phones, nuclear reactors, Play Stations, and computer chips. Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country. The Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels have primary control over the ore and are reaping huge profits which maintain and finance the protracted war ("Coltan" 9 April 2001; "Conflicts" 26 August 2001; Essick 11 June 2001). It is estimated that the Rwandan army made $20 million per month mining coltan in 2000 ('Conflicts"). As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.

Environmental degradation

Farmers have been forced off their land or into mining as war has ravaged their land. Miners threaten the environment of eastern lowland gorillas. Miners are killing elephants and gorillas on wildlife reserves and national parks. While the numbers of wildlife are dwindling, the environment is being degraded ("Miners" 13 April 2001; "Cell" 2 May 2001). Coltan mining provides great wealth for warring sides, takes away the livelihoods of people who live on the land, and destroys wildlife.

3. Duration

War broke out in August 1998 and has raged ever since with a brief time of peace in 1999 with the Lusaka peace agreement. The Lusaka Accords broke down almost immediately due to violations by all parties. The peace agreement was to open a dialogue between the government of DRC, the armed rebel and unarmed opposition groups, and civil society. The government has repeatedly blocked attempts for peace talks (U.S. State 2001).

4. Location


Southern Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo

5. Actors

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):

  • Libya - provides arms and logistical support but no troops
  • North Korea - sent advisors to train government troops
  • Rwanda - supports Congolese Rally for Democracy based in Goma (RCD/Goma) and Congolese Rally for Democracy based in Bunia (RCD/Goma); majority Tutsi
  • Uganda - supports the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC); mainly non-Tutsi
  • Burundi - fights against various Hutu groups based in the DRC that are against the Tutsi-led Burundi government
  • Angola - supports the government of the DRC
  • Namibia - supports the government of the DRC

  • Zimbabwe - supports the government of the DRC
  • Sudan - supports the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF); Ugandan expatriates against the government of Uganda
  • II. Environment Aspects

    6. Type of Environmental Problem

    Complex Emergency

    Mama Doudou

    Prostitution in the protected Ituri rain forest of eastern Congo is a lucrative business for Doudou Wangonda, also known as Mama Doudou. Along with the various species of giraffes, monkeys, and elephants in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, coltan miners do what they have to do to survive. This is where Mama Doudou comes in. The miners need their rain forest wives to cook, carry their water, and share their bed while they are away from their real wives left behind in villages and cities. For a kilo of coltan, Mama Doudou provides a miner with a woman and they set up camp in the rain forest. If he decides he would like one who is better looking or if the woman spies a richer miner, they each pay a kilo of coltan to Mama Doudou as an 'infringement fee.' Either way, she is making more money than the majority of the country. Before the price of Coltan began falling, Mama Doudou could earn $80 a kilo, and exorbitant amount of money compared to the 20 cents a day the general population lives on. At the end of last year when the demand for coltan was so large due to the increase in demand of tantalum, refined coltan essential for the production of cell phones, PlayStations and laptops, Mama Doudou left her position as a traditional chief. She joined the many miners and prostitutes wanting to make some quick cash. At first she made and sold overpriced bread. But because she is a natural born leader, Mama Doudou soon became president of the miner camp prostitutes in an election. She could care less and does not understand what 'rich white people' do with coltan; she is making more money than she ever thought possible. Money is not the only thing miners and prostitutes have produced. Most of the poor, uneducated young prostitutes and men living in unhygienic conditions have gonorrhea (Harden 12 August 2001). The economic benefits of mining coltan draw people from their homes and families, but the social and humanitarian consequences of the mining camps and war is unfortunate and terrible.

    Humanitarian Crisis

    The continuing conflict fueled by the exploitation of coltan and other minerals has pushed the DRC, particularly the eastern part into worsening humanitarian situation. Human and food insecurity are increasing. Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels are guilty of torturing, attacking, and killing innocent civilians in order to established their own rule of law. Many children are subjected to forced recruitment for mining, fighting, and sex work (AI 19 June 2001). Violence against women and prostitution has increased significantly, but exact figures are not available. The UN observer mission in the DRC estimates that over two million Congolese are affected with HIV/AIDS. Health care services are severely lacking and 37% of the population lacks access to adequate medical facilities as much infrastructure has been damaged due to conflict. 47% of population lacks access to safe drinking water and more than half of the DRC's 50 million people eats less than two-thirds of the calories needed per day. GDP per capita in 1999 was $78. Travel on roads is difficult and dangerous and trade patterns have been interrupted. This combined with disturbed planting seasons and lack of access to humanitarian assistance for three years, has left the northeastern province of Katanga very insecure (USAID 20 August 2001). Millions remain vulnerable, particularly widows, the wounded, child soldiers, and the handicapped. (ReliefWeb 12 Oct 2001).


    As humanitarian conditions in the DRC deteriorates, so does the environmental situation. In the mineral rich national parks and reserves in the northeastern section of the DRC, the numbers of lowland gorillas, okapis, and elephants have significantly dropped as miners kill the animals, eat the meat, and sell the ivory tusks of elephants (UNSC 2001: 12). The gorillas are very rare and may be on the brink of extinction. Approximately 140 eastern lowland gorillas remain in Kahuzi-Biega Park, down from 280 in 1996 (ENS 13 April 2001). 4000 out of 12,000 elephants were killed between 1995 and 1999 in a northeastern national park, while only 2 out of 350 elephant families remain in the coltan-rich Kahuzi-Biega Park (UNSC 12). As the conditions surrounding their countrymen worsens due to the conflict they take part in, rebel groups and miners continue to degrade the very land they must depend on to survive.

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is a complex emergency and millions of people are suffering. Some from choice like Mama Doudou and some due to lack of choice like the prostitutes she works with. People are destroying their very environment they need for life.

    7. Type of Habitat


    8. Act and Harm Sites:

    Act sites: The Democratic Republic of Congo

    Harm sites: The Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding neighbors

    III. Conflict Aspects

    9. Type of Conflict

    International: involving Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Libya, and North Korea


    10. Level of Conflict


    11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

    Approximately 2.5 million people died between August 1998 and April 2001 (IRC 2001). As of October 2001, the breakdown of affected populations is as follows:

    Internally Displaced Persons


    IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

    12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

    Figure 1

    As the international technology sector has significantly increased in the last few years, so has the demand for high tech inputs, such as coltan. Companies like Sony, Nokia, Ericcson, and Intel in the late 1990s increased their demand for the mining of coltan in the DRC, which in turn created the demand for miners. Rwanda and Uganda, already having ethnic and financial ties in coltan-rich areas, took control of the mining areas, committing massive human rights abuses in the process. The people remaining in the area and the miners suffer horrid living conditions and poverty. Needing to eat, they pillage nature reserve parks, damaging the ecosystem and killing off elephants, gorillas, and okapis to almost extinction

    13. Level of Strategic Interest


    14. Outcome of Dispute:


    V. Related Information and Sources

    15. Related ICE Cases

    DIAMOND-SL: Diamond Trade in Sierra Leone

    ANGOLA: Angola Diamond Mining and War

    SPRATLY: Spratly Islands Dispute and Oil

    HAITIDEF: Deforestation in Haiti

    16. Relevant Websites and Literature


    United Nations

    World Factbook

    Human Rights Watch

    Amnesty International


    CrisisWeb International Crisis Group

    Environment News Service


    Amnesty International (AI). 19 June 2001. "Democratic Republic of Congo: Rwandese- controlled east: Devastating human toll". Amnesty International online. Available from Internet; accessed 16 October 2001.

    Brady, Mick. "Cell Phones, Elephants and War." Wireless News Factor online. Available from; Internet; Accessed 11 Sept. 2001.

    "Coltan, a High-Tech Mineral, Intensifies Congo's War," African Conflict Journal. 9 April 2001. African Conflict Journal online. Available from; Internet; Accessed 11 Sept. 2001.

    "Conflicts in Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo." 26 August 2001. Available from; Internet; accessed 11 Sept. 2001.

    Congressional Research Service (CRS). "Congo (formerly Zaire)." February 26, 2001. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress.

    Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Country Profile 2000: Democratic Republic of Congo. London: Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.

    Environment News Service (ENS). 13 April 2001. "Miners' Rush for Coltan Threaten Rare Gorilla." ENS online. Available from Internet; accessed 11 September 200.1

    Essick, Kristi. "Guns, Money and Cell Phones, " The Industry Standard Magazine. 11 June 2001. The Industry Standard Magazine online. Available from,1902,26784,00.html; Internet; Accessed 11 Sept. 2001.

    Harden, Blaine. 12 August 2001. "The Dirt in the New Machine." New York Times. Section 6, pg. 35.

    International Rescue Committee (IRC). "Executive Summary: Mortality Study, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (February-April 2001)," International Rescue Committee online. Available from; Internet; accessed 18 Sept. 2001.

    "Miners' Rush for Coltan Threatens Rare Gorilla." Environment News Service online. Available from; Internet; Accessed 11 Sept. 2001.

    ReliefWeb. "Affected Populations in the Great Lakes Region (as of September 2001)." ReliefWeb online. Available from Internet; accessed 16 October 2001.

    UN Security Council (UNSC). 12 April 2001. "Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo." UN online. Available from; Internet; accessed 11 Sept 2001.

    United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 20 August 2001. "Democratic Republic of Congo - Complex Emergency Situation Report #1 (FY 2001). USAID online. Available from Internet; accessed 16 October 2001.

    United States Department of State (U.S. State). February 2001. Human Rights Country Reports: Democratic Republic of Congo. U.S. Department of State online. Available from Internet; accessed 30 October 2001.

    December, 2001