A version of this post appeared in Wanderlust Magazine April 2011
Crouched down low at the bottom of a Congolese mine-shaft was a little more excitement than I’d bargained for. I had been determined that I wasn’t actually going to go all the way down there myself but then circumstances took over. I think that’s par for the course in DR Congo. The air in the mine was so stiflingly hot and damp that I could hear myself panting in the pitch darkness. Only by shooting off a picture from my camera could I see from the LCD screen where I was. The mineshaft was propped up with roughly fashioned branches from the jungle outside and at the bottom, some 200 metres below the surface, it was less than two and half feet high. In front of me, the man I’d been following, Boniface was preparing to take a hammer and pick to the seam of minerals in the face of the rock. As soon as he brought down his hammer, pieces of dirt began to fall from the ceiling above me and I knew I’d seen enough – it was time to get out of there.
Despite the fact that we’re all travelling more and that the world seems to be becoming smaller and smaller, there are still some places that retain that sense of being the stuff of myth and legend. Eastern Congo is one of those places. The Foreign Office, commonsense, even your mother will tell you not to go there but the curious and adventurous traveller knows deep down that if you want to really know what it’s like then you have to go yourself.
This is very much the ethos of my new book Unfair Trade – How Big Business Exploits the World’s Poor and Why It Doesn’t Have To. My mission over the last year has been to see and experience for myself what it is like for those who work at the start of the supply chain where life is hard and often dangerous. Researching this book has taken me around the globe passing through not just Congo but Cote D’Ivoire, Afghanistan and the borders of Burma and Northern Laos amongst others.
Before Independence in 1960, Congo was actually quite the de rigeur adventure holiday destination. Wealthy Europeans keen to see Africa’s “heart of darkness” took cruises up the Congo River on luxurious steam powered ships and stopped off at well appointed cities with old colonial names like Leopoldville and Stanleyville. Those cities were built by the Belgians with the profits from the country’s mineral deposits. But ever since King Leopold of Belgium handed the country back to its people, the cities and the people living in them have fallen on hard times.
Congo’s recent troubles began when the ethnic violence of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda spilt over its borders. Rwandan militia groups have occupied the jungles of Eastern Congo ever since, terrorising its people while simultaneously profiting from the trade in its minerals. Back to back wars have left 5 million people dead in the last 10 years. If what has happened there had happened in Europe it would have been labelled World War Three but instead, Congo has been largely overlooked by the world’s media.
The reason I was in DR Congo was to investigate the trade in minerals from Eastern Congo, specifically cassiterite, a mineral that is necessary for the production of the chips that go in laptops and cell-phones. I went to try to put some flesh on the ethical debate about trading in minerals from conflict areas by spending time talking with miners like Boniface. While others in the West debate the rights and wrongs of a ban on the mineral trade, these brave men risk their lives every day when they descend into precariously constructed mineshafts in search of minerals. They don’t have any association with militia groups nor have they ever been involved in the fighting, for Boniface and the other miners, digging simply represents their only way to make a living.
It’s a difficult dilemma for the international community but what is clear from listening to the miners is that the last thing they want is for us to turn our backs and walk away. Many say that their dream is to work for a Western mining company, to have proper safety equipment and a weekly wage. But for now at least, mining this way is how they feed their families and so if it were banned, they would only be forced to find ways to smuggle it out of the country.
It’s a stark lesson in the danger of taking an ethical standpoint from afar. The reality is often complex and the issues need to be investigated at first hand to be fully understood. The big players within the international electronics industry who depend on the minerals Boniface and his colleagues dig out of that mine could do listening to those issues for themselves.