The Democratic Republic of Congo: Still a mess, and still integral to global capitalism

Amnesty International has recently released a report about the use of child labor in the DRC’s cobalt mines (minor miners?).  From an Ars Technica article on the matter:

Children as young as seven years old are working for up to $2 daily mining in dangerous conditions to gather cobalt used in lithium batteries for 16 multinational corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, and others, according to Amnesty International.

Actually, this doesn’t sound so terrible, if you put it next to the kinds of stories that typically come out about the region, and how violently the Congolese people and their resources are exploited.  The brutal civil war that started in 1996–the worst conflict the continent has seen since World War II–has become quieter, but continues to drag on, particularly in the mineral-rich east.

What’s really interesting is just how integrated the Congo is with global capitalism, even when violence and political anarchy is at its peak (I wrote about this a couple of years ago).  Check out this SSRN paper that studies state-formation in the Congo, and zeroes in on the relationship between the price of coltan and local rates of violence.

…I find that armed groups respond to an increase in the price of coltan by conquering coltan villages, where they establish a monopoly of violence and collect taxes.  To establish a causal relationship I exploit a drastic demand shock for coltan.  In the year 2000, innovations in the video-games industry led the demand for columbite-tantalum (coltan) to skyrocket.  The US price of coltan rose abruptly from 90 US$ per kilogram to 590 US$ per kilogram at the start of the year, and collapsed at the end of the year (Sanchez de la Sierra 2013: 3).

The “innovation in the video-games industry” he’s talking about is referring to the release of the PlayStation 2.  That’s right, the release of the PS2 lead to increased violence in the Congo as warlords scrambled to take over coltan-heavy mines and sell them off into the global markets.

This integration is hardly a new or spontaneous development.  The area was the personal corporate playground of King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908, during which some 10 million people were killed; and the subsequent colonial regime wasn’t technically genocidal, but certainly just as exploitative and profit driven.  When the country gained independence, the elected leader–Patrice Lumumba–started making some noise about nationalization and anti-imperialism, so the CIA and their Western corporate constituents funded a coup, threw the country into chaos, and killed Lumumba in 1961.  They then installed Mobutu Sese Seko as the country’s dictator, who for the next three decades proceeded to loot the country alongside Western (and later Chinese) mining corporations, and accumulated billions of dollars in his personal bank accounts, until the civil war finally threw him out of the “government”.

So, no surprise that the metal mines of the Congo use child labor–or that the global markets depend so much on them.  Its business as usual for imperialism and the Congo.


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One thought on “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Still a mess, and still integral to global capitalism

  1. Cobalt in the Congo | Jnana Yuddha October 4, 2016 at 7:01 pm Reply

    […] reminder of what a mess the Congo is in general, and its position in global capitalism.  I wrote a blurb a while back when Amnesty International published a report on child labor in Congo’s cobalt […]


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