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Demand for Electronics Stokes Congo's Violent Tin Trade

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Balumisa Chuma, a colonel in the Congolese Army, was arrested Monday morning as he and twelve soldiers under his command attempted to smuggle 10 tonnes of cassiterite, or tin ore, through the eastern province of South Kivu

"He'd been doing this trafficking for a long time because he felt his rank, his position, covered him," Army spokesman Vianney Kazarama told AFP on Wednesday.

Demand for cassiterite, which yields tin after smelting, is actually far less abundant than many other elements (the earth's crust contains "about 2 parts per million (ppm), compared with 94 ppm for zinc, 63 ppm for copper, and 12 ppm for lead, according to, increased drastically in 2004, when Japan and the European Union enacted strict new laws phasing out the use of lead-based solder.

David Barouski of the Africa Faith & Justice Network explains that the "global solder market accounts for nearly half for the world's tin consumption, and 70% of the world's solder is sold to the electronics industry," with much of the balance being used for other industrial applications, like automotive metal coatings.

As prices spiked, the military in the war-torn region quickly moved to take advantage of this new revenue stream.

"As long as the region remains so militarized, even more now with these operations, it's very likely that the minerals are very directly profiting -- if not [militia groups] -- then the army itself," Carina Tertsakian of Global Witness told the Wall Street Journal.

David Barouski is far less uncertain about the army's involvement in the mines.

"Cassiterite mining in the Kivu provinces is not industrial," he told a group in 2008. "In Bisie, there are roughly 167 individual mining areas comprised of alluvial and open pit surface mining sites along with underground hard rock sites. At least 29 of these pits are controlled by elements of the Congolese National Army, or FARDC. Each pit can be worked for about three months. Around 1,800 people work in some capacity at the mining sites. Roughly 1,100 of them are artisanal miners, meaning that they labor by hand with pickaxes and shovels. At least 300 of these miners are children that are small enough to fit into the narrow tunnels. According to a report by the Initiative for Central Africa, 20% were either orphans or had no idea where their families were."

Last year, a Reuters article declared "No end in sight to Congo's violence," roughly 100 years after Arthur Conan Doyle deemed Congo “one long horrible tragedy,” with the citizenry “robbed of all they possessed, debauched, degraded, mutilated, tortured, murdered, all on such a scale as has never, to my knowledge, occurred before in the whole course of history.”

"To be fair," points out James Farrar of ZDNet, "managing commodities sourced unethically out of the supply chain is exceedingly difficult," as the tangle of miners, middlemen, traders, exporters, manufacturers, and so forth involved in the trade is virtually impossible to sort out.

Even so, a rule proposed by the SEC in December (but not yet finalized) would require US manufacturers to disclose the use of "conflict minerals" -- including cassiterite -- from Congo.

Not altogether surprisingly, the move has been met with stiff resistance from industry.

"The burden on smaller companies… will be disproportionately high and may even lead to companies having to go out of business," Stephen Jacobs of the National Association of Manufacturers told a UN publication.

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