People & Power

Congo’s Tin Idea

Proposed programme by Dutch diplomat aims to end the violence that ‘conflict minerals’ have caused in South Kivu.

South Kivu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is both infamous for its vicious and seemingly never-ending civil conflict and envied for its vast natural resources.

These abundant minerals – from tin to coltan – are in huge international demand; vital to the economies of the developed world as key components in high-tech electronic consumer goods, from laptops and tablets to smart phones and flat screen TVs.

But this demand has also helped make these strategically important metals a key driver of the endemic conflict in this part of the country – violence that has led to the deaths of nearly six million in over a decade.

The battle between rival warlords and militias for control of these resources, or the money they generate, has taken the Congolese people to the edge of disaster time and again. And it will continue to do so for as long as the region’s mines and transport infrastructure are vulnerable to anyone with the military means for extortion.

I has led to a new term – conflict minerals.

Now one man believes he may have found a solution.

His Royal Highness Prince Jaime de Bourbon Parme is a Dutch diplomat, as well as the heir to House of Bourbon Parma. He is the special envoy on natural resources to the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs and has persuaded a handful of the world’s largest electronic companies to consider taking part in a ground-breaking project that just might, play a major role in ending the conflict.

His aim, he says, is to make market forces, not armed forces, be the critical factor in the Eastern Congo, which is why he is backing a plan to produce the first ever conflict-free tin.

Prince Jaime’s vision was to create a transparency system based around a tin mine at Kalimbi, which monitors the metal from one end of the supply chain to another, right from the moment the tin ore is dug up and brought out of the tunnel, all the way through until it has been processed, sold and placed into containers for export.

A pilot project began in October 2012 and he believes that if it is successful and adopted elsewhere, it could not only help end the violence but also ensure the long-term survival of communities who have come to depend on mining for their livelihoods.

“We have now produced  six big containers full of Cassitorite, which is tin ore, and exported these six containers and actuall, we can talk about traceable and responsible trade in minerals from Congo. So if I’m overly optimistic, I think I’ve been driven by some sense of optimism, but we’ve approached it very pragmatically, step by step to see how far we could get and we have got much further than we thought we would.”

So, is this optimism justified?

Though it is promising, the project is still in its infancy and will always to some extent be dependent on the varying degrees of political and military stability in the region.

However, the outlook is positive.

For international electronic companies, it has the potential to provide them with minerals that tick their commercial boxes and reassures their consumers who want ‘conflict-free’ products that are produced in a socially responsible way.  If those commercial relationships can be maintained and money continues to flow in then it has a chance.

As filmmaker Fiona Lloyd-Davies, who made Congo’s Tin Idea for People & Power with the support of The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, discovered there is also overwhelming support for the project from all sides of the community.

“While they all spoke of problems – from low prices to the poor working conditions – they know that this is the only game in town right now.”

And that ultimately, is the point.

For the Kalimbi community, it could help provide a future free from the misery of war, violence and insecurity.

To achieve that aim most people in the area seem prepared to back it to the hilt. Too many times in the past, the gun has won out, perhaps this time, for once, business can defeat the gun.