The Resource Curse Revised: Conflict and Coltan in the Congo

Article excerpt

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Norton and Company, 1963, 35.

The Resource Curse and its Paradox

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), also known as "The Congo" and "Zaire," remains the "heart of darkness" depicted so scintillatingly by Conrad in his novella. A place of conflict, brutality, and exploitation, the Congo documented by Marlow, a Belgian traveler journeying up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, the infamous ivory station chief and Marlow's fellow colonist, is not that different from its present reality. The faces of DRC leaders may be different, the names of places may have changed, but the Congo's horror is unchanged. Ongoing armed conflict and strife between groups of varying nationalities, ethnicities, and ideologies overwhelm the lush land. Here, greed for political power and wealth fuels the exploitation of people, their resources, and their homeland. Lusting foreigners, rebels, and governments strip the land of its natural resources. It is widely acknowledged that greed exacerbates the negligence of an incompetent state and thereby leads to war. In the DRC, greed has precipitated a multinational war. Most recently, since 1998, the country has transformed into a battleground for what many observers have dubbed Africa's "First World War," a war that has cost over 3.8 million lives.

Both precedent and theory lend reason for the ongoing conflict in the Congo. From the diamond mines of South and West Africa to the oilfields of Iraq and the timber-rich forests of the Amazon, millions of people in these resource-rich countries have seen their lives devastated by the mishandling of vast revenues from natural resources. This pattern has reaffirmed the well-established resource curse: resource-rich countries are less wealthy and less competently governed than those lacking in natural resources. The resource curse gives reason for the empirical correlation between resource-rich countries and reduced investment in human capital, increased domestic political corruption, and perilous reductions in economic diversification. The ultimate result of these outcomes is the stunted long-term economic growth of an ostensibly fortunate nation.

Nowhere has the mismanagement of abundant resources manifested itself more visibly than in the DRC. DRC resources include copper, diamonds, cobalt, petroleum, gold, silver, zinc, and coltan. The exploitation of coltan, used in computer microchips, is relatively underexamined by the international community, yet it is highly demanded overseas. Greed for coltan haunts the DRC. Indeed, the country's complex, unstable history, the corruption and substandard performance of its leaders, the ethnic hostilities, and the international community's invasion of the DRC, compounded with its readily available natural wealth, have led to ongoing war. Today, this human disaster is regarded as the worst African emergency and the worst humanitarian calamity since World War II.

Political stability no longer looks impossible in the DRC following a power-sharing Global and All-Inclusive Agreement in South Africa in December 2003, from which a transitional government was formed and the country's first presidential elections were held in July 2006. However, even though the war is officially over, dozens of rebel armies remain fighting in the east, vying for products sold largely to the international community.

Even though this vast country, which spans an area the size of Western Europe, or 2.34 million square kilometers, is being patrolled by the world's largest UN peacekeeping force (some 17,000 UN representatives are dispersed across the country), the Western media has significantly underplayed the war and its aftermath. …