The control over so-called conflict minerals runs like a red thread through the Congolese unrest. Tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold are used in everything from airplane parts to mobile phones. A large share of these minerals originate in Congo, a nation also rich in natural resources such as diamonds, uranium, natural gas, oil and rare species of trees. Due to the high value of conflict minerals, insurgent groups and military leaders have long used tactics such as slavery, rape, murder and theft to gain control over these. Millions of dollars end up in their hands when these goods are sold on the international market, where they, among other things, end up as part of our electrical goods.The UN estimates that Congo has untouched mineral reserves worth 24 trillion (24 billion billion) dollar.
«Since the end of the 1990s, military forces, insurgent groups and armies plundered these riches. This has led to a series of wars which have caused more fatalities than any other conflict since Second World War, » explains film maker Mike Ramsdell, who is behind the current Congo-documentary
«The deaths are not due to bombs or drone-attacks. When someone is killed in Congo, it is because someone has decided to do it. This choice has been made more than five million times in 17 years, » he says. «Looking at the situation superficially gives the impression that ‘Africans are killing each other.’ But the reality is that the conflict is maintained by the West, who has profited from it. The Congolese have lived under dictators supported by Western nations. When I understood how much the West is to blame for what has happened, this became an important story for me to tell, » explains Ramsdell as the reasoning behind the film. The biggest impression left on Ramsdell was the Congolese frustration over the never-ending wars and meaninglessness. The UN’s largest ground forces are present here, but have done very little to limit the violence, he feels: «I was in a refugee camp for the internally displaced, which did not have clean water but masses of medicines. Nobody contributed any oil to get the well started, and without food and water lining their stomachs, medicines would only make them sicker. » Whilst speaking with people who watched their children die and were themselves starving to death, a UN-helicopter started to circle above. Every time a helicopter is despatched, it costs several thousands of dollars. An amount that would have secured food and water for the camp for a month. «This provoked an enormous anger within the people. They are starving to death in their own country, and Western countries are flying above them in helicopters claiming to help, » says Ramsdell.
Two forms of exploitation. The film is aimed at providing understanding and hope, in addition to highlighting tangible ways of contributing to improving Congo. The documentarist is concerned with two different areas in the country, where minerals are exploited in various manners: «In the South, there are multinational corporations, disloyal officials and awful extraction contracts. There is less war here, but Congo is losing a lot of money as companies sign corrupt deals and hide behind firms registered in the Virgin Isles. Companies buy cheap licences from the Congolese government which they sell on to mining companies, making up to 800 percent profits in the process, » says Ramsdell. «East-Congo boasts more primitive extraction conditions, whereby much is controlled by and exchanged between armed groups, corrupt military and neighbouring countries. The area is fair game, and millions have been killed and forcibly displaced, » he continues. «None of this happened instantly, its origin can be traced far back in history. The first slaves were captured from the Congo estuary by the Portuguese. Thereafter, King Leopold II of Belgium arrived, and with him, an exploitation of ivory and rubber under the Congo Free State (1885-1908) and Belgian Congo (1908–1960). Following this, the USA became involved. In 1960, Congo held its first democratic election, where Patrick Lumumba was elected President. The USA and Belgium ensured that Lumumba was assassinated – and replaced him with their own dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who remained in power for 30 years. Mobutu created his own net fortune worth four billion dollar whilst he allowed Congo to decay. When an armed insurgent group, in frustration, staged a coup against Mobutu, the USA wanted to cooperate, and western companies started to negotiate with the group», says Ramsdell. «We are there because history brought us there. This is vital to understand. A superficial look at the situation can give the impression that ‘Africans are killing each other.’ But, the reality is that this conflict has been maintained by the West, who has profited from it.
Hope and action. Mike Ramsdell’s previous film, 2009’s The Anatomy of Hate, portrayed hate as a culturally learnt mechanism, and was heavily based upon philosophy and social sciences. Again, he not only portrays tragedy, but also the basis for hope. «Some might say that I don’t show enough hope, others that I show too much. By the end of the film, I want the spectators to feel wired into action. First of all, I am stating that the situation need not be as it is, and secondly, that the Congolese do what they can. There are, for instance, many grass root organisations. The average Congolese want nothing more than peace and harmony, and to be able to send their children to school. Thirdly, there are some very specific actions we as western consumers and voters can do to bring hope and create a new reality for the Congolese, » explains the documentarist. Ramsdell’s inclusion of human descriptions in his films appeal to the audience’s emotions – not just to their intellect. This way, it becomes easier to look at the subjects as fellow human beings. «I not only portray happy Congolese people, but also a diverse population. Our opinion of Africa is too one-sided. Obviously, there are people living in a straw hut in the countryside, and starving children. But there are also fantastic academics, people who have an educational background from all over the world, and who returned because they want to make a difference to their own continent. One man I interviewed speaks 14 languages and has travelled the world. There is a great range of personalities and abilities, and this I want to clarify, » says the film maker. A lot is described through recordings of meetings he did with Congolese people, and some via historical material. «During the four years I worked on this film, I stayed in Congo for long periods of time. Several of the excerpts show conditions as they are today, and I also interviewed people who were central in historical events. The film provides different perspectives with which to understand the current situation. In particular, I wanted to bring forward the voices and history of the Congolese, » he adds.
Irresponsible industry. The film maker suggests that most Americans are not aware of the Congo conflict, despite the so-called 2013 Obama-law which was supposed to stop unethical mineral extraction. «The Dodd-Frank-law was supposed to take hold of the problems facing the eastern and southern regions of the country. It demands that corporations must show that the minerals in their products did not finance conflict, and that companies trading in the USA need to provide fully transparent contracts. Firms must account for the price they paid for their natural gas, oil and minerals to avoid many of the loopholes that enable corruption. The latter was never implemented, » explains the director, who remains unimpressed by the industry’s ability to solve these problems. «In 2001 already, the UN published its first report on East Congo minerals financing the conflict. For twelve years, the electronics industry was aware that they earnt a fortune employing minerals that were used to finance a war. Despite this, they did nothing. It is now claimed that the law creates too much paperwork, and changes nothing. The industry has initiated a campaign aimed at vilifying the law. This from someone who had twelve years to do something on their own,» says Ramsdell. He is frustrated by the media and regular people’s vilification of the law. «It carries repercussions which some Congolese dislike, and it does not solve all the problems. But it nevertheless helps, and brings attention to the case. The corporation are forced to finding a better alternative, and the governments have to regulate the mining operations in order to show that the minerals are conflict free. «Electronics manufacturers want to sell. If enough people demand products that are free from conflict minerals, then then companies will produce them. This would force them to observe the OECD guidelines for taking due care when extracting minerals from Congo, » concludes Ramsdell.