Money From Stone: Congo’s Troubled Tin Mines

Catholic Relief Services

By Lane Hartill

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.

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.

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 requirescompanies 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.”