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An Uprooted System of Conflict

by Olivia Molitor


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

-United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights


          After attending the “The Violent Imagination of Financial Capitalism” lecture moderated by Amel Ouaïssa at Transmediale in Berlin of this year, I was moved to ask a series of questions and through that line of questioning I have accumulated quite a bit of research. By a large account I was influenced by Max Haiven, Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social justice at Lakehead University, Canada, who spoke about the indelible ironies of physically existing between two unplayable debts. His grandfather was a holocaust survivor and he lives in Thunder Bay, Canada where the “First People” have been and are treated horribly. I wanted to move in the same vein as their research and examine another set of systems that are held hostage to the unpayable and ongoing debts.

       This is my attempt to answer some of the questions I had. Bare in mind that this research paper initially cast a rather wide net but through the extensive research into the topic, it has been narrowed down rather significantly. This is a multi-faceted and multi-layered story, though unfortunately not all layers and facets are explored. At the outset my aim was to investigate whether or not the communities that were made responsible for the extraction of the necessary minerals for electrical components such as car batteries and mobile phones were actually benefiting from the exploitation of environment. I sought to be cognizant of the colonial framing that is inherently implicit within the context of my starting point. Using decolonizing, feminist technoscience, and unease methodologies I was able to further analyze the research I was conducting and try to parse out important layers of the story. Through this research and this paper, I seek to make visible and hopefully shed new light on the situation. Perhaps also in the Vein of Baaz and Stern, to make people a little uncomfortable situated in unease.

      The following is an overview of the questions I sought to answer. Firstly, I wanted to further investigate the history of what precipitated and allowed the events and conditions to come to fruition. Furthermore, I wanted to examine the systems set in place and how they have affected people who are living in the communities surrounding mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This ultimately led me to the line of government policies or agencies that aim to put pressure on the actors involved. Lastly, I wanted to explore organisations and companies that seek solutions and how they are entangled in the problems. I would like to pause here and note that as Linda Tuhwai Smith, author of guiding text Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, elucidates that effects of ‘research’ has been at the disservice and detriment of indigenous cultures and peoples, often resulting in grievous and heinous crimes against them. (Smith, 2012) Throughout this process, I have tried to situate myself within these realms of being a female researcher, a beneficiary of the colonial settler state, and the inherent biases I may have.

Brief History

“Freedom persists as our most compelling way of marking differences between lives whose terms are relatively controlled by their inhabitants and those that are less so, between conditions of coercion and  conditions of action, between domination by history and participation in history, between the space for action and its relative absence.” (Brown, 1995)

       Before delving into the present day situation which I set out to examine, I feel that it is of importance to understand how some aspects of present day were able to come to fruition; through a brief history of the DRC and the colonial involvement of both Belgium and the United States of America. King Leopold II of Belgium set his eyes on the Congo Basin in early 1870. Through a variety of factors a collection of European nations came together to discuss the division of the African continent; without a single African person present. “The Congress of Berlin granted the Belgian King rights to the Congo, which was held as his personal property.” (Carmody, 2011). Leopold’s claim was upheld and officially recognized. This was a systematic take over, starting with the coastal regions and working inwards. Eventually the whole of Africa was divided with no regard to the existing territories or boundary lines. It was called the Scramble for Africa.

     A writer and foreign correspondent for the New York Herald named Henry Stanley was sent to Africa to follow up on a story which consequently led him to the DRC, or as it was known in the 1870’s ‘the Congo Free State’. He established “a series of outposts along the Congo… providing a foothold that enabled Leopold to claim sovereignty over an area of nearly 1 million square miles--eighty times the size of his home country.”  (Adams & McShane, 1997) With the Congo effectively occupied the country “became a major source of rubber for European and American car tyres and also condoms.” (Carmody, 2011). Through this major exportation, Leopold was quickly able to amass a fortune on the backs of the Congolese people. It is estimated that nearly 10 million people were killed in the Congo in the pursuit of ivory and rubber. Eventually, Leopold was forced to relinquish his power and in 1908 the Congo was annexed.

      The DRC went through an extreme period of neo-colonialism with Belgian colonial administrators ruling. In 1960 the Congo achieved independence and Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister. His reign was cut short when a coup, backed by the CIA and the Belgian government, was staged which culminated in the assassination of Lumumba. Joseph Mobutu was installed and was considered to be a 'friendly' dictator. “In the late 1970’s Mobutu... received half of all American aid to Africa” (Mantz, 2008). This was not a new story unfortunately, the West and European nations have an inextricably messy relationship with the Congo and the African continent; I use the word relationship because of the power dynamic that has always been in the West’s favour. The truth of the matter is that it has been both lucrative and profitable for centuries to view the people that have been subjugated by colonialism and postcolonialism as less than human. I believe that the book The Myth of Wild Africa, puts it best “Europeans invented a mythical Africa, which soon claimed a place of privilege in the Western imagination.” (Adams & McShane, 1997) That ‘place of privilege’ extended to the bodies, cultures and customs of human beings.

       The extreme conditions that King Leopold II created and enforced were an opportunistic disease. It precipitated an economy that was structured to accommodate the demands of industrialising Europe. “Consequently European prosperity was partly built on the colonization of the continent.” (Carmody, 2011). This coupled with the proclivity in Western history and discourse to conveniently ‘forget’ the deeply rooted trunks of colonialism, as a global society, we look out from the tops of the branches unable to recognise the path to the ground, and are unable to see the people that have been made into roots. Max Haiven posited “the epistemology of white ignorance, one that teaches a certain systematic forgetting and reinforces the presumption of equality where (often deadly) inequity persists in spite of formal legal equity.” (Haiven, 2017)

Inequity of Profit

“women have been treated as beings whose nature is to be directed by another, and whose purpose is instrumental; women have been treated as lacking in autonomy, and have had their autonomy systematically violated or stifled. This links the idea of oppression with that of objectification: when women are treated as tools, they are treated as things, items lacking in agency.” (Langton, 2009) 

     To further the discussion of the inequity that persists in both a Western capacity but also in the Congo, I am led to the destructive force behind aspects of the extractive sector. Whilst mining operations have had some successes, it has also fueled conflict and gendered sexual violence in the DRC for years. The minerals that are extracted are fuel for gender based violence. ‘In eastern Congo, rape and sexual violence are routinely employed as weapons to subjugate villages and terrorise entire communities. From old women to young children, the soldiers do not discriminate; the stories of their brutality and torture are so horrific that they rarely reach western ears.”  (Wanga, 2010) There are countless women that have been brutalised by the intense number of armed groups that control the mineral extraction. “Today approximately seventy armed groups are believed to be operating in the eastern region of the DRC... their activities financed by the area’s rich natural resources. In addition to the violence caused by rebel-forces, the President Joseph Kabila caused more instability by postponing the scheduled 2016 election after his term ended, cracking down on internal dissent to further stay in power.” (Rowsome, 2018)

     There are many NGOs and different organisations working to end the violence but though one doctor in particular is interested in helping rape victims specifically. “Dr Denis Mukwege, who is based in the DRC, is a Congolese gynaecologist. He founded and works at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he specializes in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped by rebel forces.” (Rowsome, 2018) The hospital opened its doors in 1999 and since then has treated over 50,000 women. It aims to provide a multitude of services to the patients such as medical treatment and psychological assistance, as well as a team that focuses on the reintegration of each victim and their needs. Dr. Mukwege also speaks of the trauma inflicted on the men whose wives and sisters and cousins are raped. He believes that sexual violence cannot be considered just a women’s issue or a feminist issue. He argues that, “Men should not feel accused because they too are victims of sexual violence. It must be understood that sexual violence is the most effective weapon. It destroys physically, mentally and socially. It is a weapon that has consequences that are transmitted vertically on offsprings and horizontally on spouses.” (Rowsome, 2018)

     When I began my research I was not aware of the extent to which conflict minerals have routinely affected the lives of women and men in communities, such as these, though I had heard that the DRC was considered to be on of the most dangerous places to be a woman. Upon finding a study conducted by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern titled, Researching Wartime Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo: A Methodology of Unease, I was struck by their findings. Operating from a feminist and postcolonial framing, Baaz and Stern attempted to examine the connections between gender and militarized violence. They use the methodology of unease, which was retroactively applied to their research. I strove to situate myself within this framing. Ultimately it limited their capacity to inhabit new information and in some ways reinforced their biases.

    Baaz and Stern were operating within the framing of ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’, such as the military amplification of extreme and heightened sense of masculinity and how that is superior to feminine qualities. They also considered the raping of ‘enemy’ women as relates to the dominant and unforgiving notion of virginity and purity; raping the women ‘sullies’ them and makes them unsuitable for current or future partners. With all this in mind they interviewed 150 soldiers within the Congolese national army. They were shocked by not only the stories that the soldiers chose to share but also their own reactions. Baaz and Stern found that many of the soldiers spoke as husbands and fathers, and found little evidence that rape was encouraged or ordered within the military. (Baaz & Stern, 2016) The tropes and stereotypes that surround how people in the Congo are depicted are actually dangerous and in many ways dehumanize the people; making it seem necessary to intervene. They effectively distance the West from the reality of what is happening and allow for an  incredibly convenient chasm of ‘here’ and ‘there’. (Baaz & Stern, 2016) The bias of being a ‘saviour’ coupled with the framing of the ‘Rape as a weapon’ makes it disconcertingly easy not to hear other parts of the person’s life. With all that being said though, there are still important things to be addressed and seeing as many of the world benefits from the exploitation of conflict minerals, I as led to my next point of research; the governmental aspect.

Alternative Approaches

“The congo has been the site of  protracted conflict, with an estimated five million deaths from war-related causes  since 1998, and involving seven foreign armies and several armed groups, making it the world’s deadliest documented conflict since the Second World War” (Baaz & Stern, 2016)

      The Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was initially proposed in 2009 by President Obama as a direct response to the economic crash in 2007-2008. It was the biggest overhaul in legislation surrounding the taxation laws since the Great Depression. One of the main tenets of the law was the concern for consumer protection. Section 1502 of the act require U.S. publicly listed companies to check their supply chains for tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. (Witness, 2017) The companies were not discouraged from sourcing from the region as long as it is in compliance with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). “Supply chain due diligence is a process that was developed in response to the well-documented links between the minerals trade, human rights abuses and the financing of conflict prevalent in parts of the Great Lakes region [of the Congo].” (White, 2017) The passing of this law was in many ways a catalyst for transforming and shifting the responsibility to companies. It also encourages local groups to monitor the extractive trade in their country and through that there is a continual exposure of serious issues like human rights abuse. These measures are important, although they feel to a certain extent perhaps inevitably steeped in post-colonial rhetoric, but it is a starting point nonetheless. It also prompted the creation of “The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) a coalition of governments, companies, civil society groups, investors, and international organizations. Its global standard requires disclosure of corporate payments to governments and related government revenues. Country reports are public and undergo independent verification.” (Bleischwitz, 2014)

    It is pertinent to note that there have been some downsides to the passing of this law. There were a number of companies that withdrew from the DRC to avoid engaging in responsible extraction and adhering to the regulations. That withdrawal affected the livelihood of thousands of artisanal miners in eastern Congo. Another drawback is that this system of due diligence rely upon third party audits, which allow for loopholes. Apple has filed mineral conflict reports and as of “December 2015, after five years of devoted effort, 100% of the identified smelters and refiners in Apple’s supply chain for current products were participating in an independent third party conflict minerals audit ” (, 2015) Apple has continued to uphold their commitment to sourcing conflict-free minerals into 2018 (Apple, 2017) However the company has stated that they do not wish to label their products as conflict-free because there is so much more work to do.

    One company, Fairphone, are not shy about being conflict-free. Originally “a campaign to raise awareness in the Netherlands about the connection between smartphones and the conflict in the DRC...They invited the Dutch public to develop collaboratively a ‘fair’ smartphone: a phone that would be ‘conflict‐mineral free’.”(Akemu, Whiteman, Kennedy, 2016) There are some complaints about certain design qualities and the camera but ultimately they are choosing to be transparent which is becoming more the norm but was so achingly rare at the outset in 2009 when the company was created. The Fairphone is not going to solve all of the issues created by the extractive sector in the Congo, but it is an incredibly good place to start. I especially liked it because it was a collaboration with the Dutch people. It was an investment in the imagination of the people. Max Haiven speaks to the radical imagination and how it is germane to participate together. Through imagination we create “opportunities to dream of, discuss, debate, and pursue different futures together.” (Haiven, 2017)


An Ending and a Beginning of Sorts: Conclusion

       I set out to give space and make visible connections that I didn’t feel were illuminated too clearly. I sought to research the impacts of mineral extraction and the systems that are able to exist due to colonial and postcolonial efforts. What I found was so much more than my initial queries. I found human stories of pain and attempts at redressing wounds from generations past. I found myself confronted with the task of articulating where I am situated in these systems and processes. I am a beneficiary of the colonial and post-colonial efforts made to eradicate and devalue the livelihoods of thousands of people. I have the absolute luxury and capacity to sit here and contemplate where I stand within all of this. There are countless women and men who are never afforded the time or energy or the want to do that. I have argued that it is our moral imperative to be conscious, cogent and empathetic consumers. So many people directly benefit through indirect links. It is our responsibility to make visible those connections and expose them for what they are.

      I considered leaving space and time for myself and seeing where my research informed the want to create something, but after doing the research I found myself more uncomfortable than ever with the notion of what I sought to create. In some ways, I am more aware of my position within the settler-colonial state as a white middle class female whose family has benefited from that very position. Granted, I do have quite a bit of Irish relatives that faced prejudice when arriving in America but that is just part of the fabric of my family, not something that I am confronted with or have dealt with personally. Also, after speaking with a fellow classmate who pointed out that the representation and objectification of African and Black bodies has been rampant throughout time, in memoriam, I heeded her observation. Maybe it is close minded of me to not even attempt an artefact of the original nature that I intended, but I am okay with that. I did not seek to speak for or represent the people who are present in the research I conducted.

     I will leave you with these questions to consider: Is it the onus of everyone benefiting from the exploitation of human beings to do something? Is it our moral imperative? Is it our moral responsibility to put pressure on the companies that continue to extract minerals from vulnerable communities? Through my research, I believe it is mutually beneficial to examine the systems that are at play and continually question the standards that we are accepting; to not be complacent or complicit.




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