The tragic death of the Italian ambassador and the two men who were with him, occurred last February 22 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have put the spotlight on a country that is extremely poor, despite its vast natural resources, and torn apart by years of conflict, misgovernment, instability and corruption. It is precisely in the African Great Lakes region that MAGIS Foundation, in September 2020, launched the Gold Without Conflict project, which aims to analyze “the gold routes” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Italy through a research into the supply chain, from extraction to sale. The research will provide the basis for building concrete proposals and interventions in favour of a sustainable use of gold by those who import, process and sell it. At the same time it will be a useful tool to prevent that the proceeds of extraction produce the exploitation of many people, including children, and the emergence of violent conflicts.

We report an article by Stefano Liberti, journalist and essayist who collaborates with MAGIS Foundation for the research and advocacy project aimed at tracing and promoting an ethical supply chain for gold exported from Congo to Italy. 

The murder of Ambassador Luca Attanasio, carabiniere Vittorio Iacovacci and driver Mustapha Milambo near Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, concerns us much more than we imagine. It is from the mines scattered throughout the province of Nord-Kivu, whose capital is Goma, that a significant part of the raw materials essential to many tools of our daily lives are extracted. It is from here that coltan comes, a mixture of columbite and tantalite present in cell phones, cameras, micro-chips, as well as in various medical devices. It is also here that we get the gold used in wedding rings, jewellery, but also as a conductor in various electronic devices.

According to a mapping of the Belgian research institute International Peace Information Service (Ipis), in eastern Congo there are about 2,000 extraction sites. Of these, at least a third is controlled by armed groups, whether rebels or battalions of the Congolese army itself. The presence of these militiamen creates a climate of permanent instability and fuels cross clashes like the one in which the mission led by the Italian diplomat fell victim.

Again, according to Ipis, 200,000 people are employed in these informal mines. Many of these are children who are particularly valued for their ability to squeeze through narrow tunnels: they work without protection, often digging with their bare hands. This was recently observed by a mission of MAGIS Foundation, the organization of the Euro-Mediterranean Province of the Society of Jesus that is conducting a project to promote an ethical supply chain for gold exported from Congo to Italy.

It is useful to widen our view and understand what the final destination of those coveted mineral resources is. The final destination of the conflicts that have been upsetting the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 25 years are precisely our cell phones, our computers, our rings. There is a red thread between our everyday devices and items and what is happening in eastern Congo. If the smartphone is now available to everyone, it is also because the extraction of raw materials necessary for its operation takes place in conditions of exploitation, with no respect for the dignity of workers nor for the most basic environmental standards. Moreover, the Congolese State does not receive proper royalties: the militiamen or intermediaries who control this trade smuggle the mineral resources into neighbouring countries, from where they are sold to producing industries or refiners. Particularly tortuous is the path of gold: after being brought illegally to Uganda or Rwanda, it is exported to South Africa or Dubai, where it is refined and transformed into ingots. In this form, it reaches the final markets: Europe, the United States, China and India.

The length of the supply chain makes the traceability process complex. But the good news is that this process is now mandatory, at least in the European Union: on January 1, Regulation 821/2017 came into force, obliging European importers of tin, tantalum, tungsten, their minerals, and gold to fulfil due diligence duties to prevent this trade’s profits from financing conflicts. From now on, those who import coltan and gold into the EU will have to indicate their origin and movements along the supply chain.

The regulation has just come into force. It will be necessary to see how it will be applied in practice. But it is certainly a first important step towards improving living and working conditions in Congolese mines. And to make more transparent a supply chain in which we are more involved than we imagine.

Courtesy of L’Espresso (article published on 28/02/2021).

Photo: Workers in the mines of the Province of North Kivu. Credit: MAGIS Italia.