Caritas International Belgium #behindthescreens
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DR Congo :

Caritas International Belgium#behindthescreens
September 2019

Connected anytime, anywhere. Faster, smarter and even greener… but what if the digital world doesn’t keep its promises? Look behind the screens and discover the human and environmental impact of your digital consumption.


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Your pocket holds more than 45 rare minerals. They are the building blocks of your smartphone, the core of our electronic devices and batteries. The center of the digital revolution. Tin, coltan or cobalt: they are rare and valuable minerals that continue to fuel bloody conflicts, injustice and irreversible damage to our planet. Especially in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where thousands of miners risk their lives every day for a pittance. They are the first link in a chain of exploitation and production that is suffering from a serious lack of transparency and responsibility, despite the promises of clean industries.

At the other end of the chain, YOU have the power to change this situation: By consuming less and better and by demanding a digital world that respects people, the environment and the limited resources of our planet.


<p>“We came back from the market, where we had bought oil. On our way back we encountered armed men. There were many of them, they stopped us and asked for money. The oldest of us had money and could leave. I didn’t have any money, they took me and two other girls… our torment lasted a week.”</p>

“We came back from the market, where we had bought oil. On our way back we encountered armed men. There were many of them, they stopped us and asked for money. The oldest of us had money and could leave. I didn’t have any money, they took me and two other girls… our torment lasted a week.”


“We came back from the market, where we had bought oil. On our way back we encountered armed men. There were many of them, they stopped us and asked for money. The oldest of us had money and could leave. I didn’t have any money, they took me and two other girls… our torment lasted a week.” Noëlla isn’t even 18 years old yet. She is in the hospital of Panzi, under the care of Nobel prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege and his team. She is about to give birth to the child of one of her rapists.

There are hundreds of girls and women in the same situation here, and tens of thousands in the province of South-Kivu in the East of Congo. Between February and March this year, Caritas documented 340 sexual attacks in the area of the mining town of Salamabila alone. This is yet another proof that rape is still a weapon of terror.

The terror is not without reasons; it forms a strategic element of the chaos that prevails in the region. Because of this organized disarray, the forces in this conflict can enrich themselves by plundering natural resources, goods and people. They can expand their domination and at the same time fuel the conflict that has devastated the region for almost 25 years. A peak of inter-ethnic violence and hatred followed the Rwandan genocide in the whole sub-region. Dozens of armed groups and their local, national and international political contacts take entire communities hostage. In the absence of the State, the rule of lawlessness and impunity, these armed groups are the main cause of the huge amount of people fleeing within their own country: 800,000 people in South Kivu are internally displaced.

The unsafety and the migration play into the hands of epidemics such as cholera, measles or Ebola, not to mention the large-scale malnutrition… “In Bukavu, the capital of the province, we have four big cemeteries”, says Roger Buhendwa of the Panzi Foundation. “That is a lot. And yet we still dig up the deceased every three years. The cemeteries are filled with families driven to the city by war and driven to an early grave by diseases that aren’t even that serious.” When does compliance end? Where does complicity begin?


The richness of the Congolese subsoil contrasts sharply with the poverty on its surface. We call this the curse of raw materials or the paradox of abundance – the countries with the most raw materials have the poorest population. You don’t get rich here by extracting raw materials. At best, you stay alive.

<p>©Justice & Paix – One million Congolese survive because of artisanal mining. They work in poor conditions for a pittance.</p>

©Justice & Paix – One million Congolese survive because of artisanal mining. They work in poor conditions for a pittance.

At the age of 56, Jean has been a gold digger for 25 years. He is an authority figure for the youngsters who dare to work in the goldmine of Nyamurhale, on the territory of Walungu. He wears a cap with a headlight and points out the many daily risks: failing pumps and, as a result, the threat of rising water levels and lack of air in the shafts, toxic substances, physically demanding work, the absence of a health center nearby and the feared landslides. Risks that apply to the majority of artisanal mines.

<p>“All of us, we are…slaves. We work and the others eat.”</p>

“All of us, we are…slaves. We work and the others eat.”

“There were 46 gold diggers in this pit that we call “The Promised Land”. Now there is only three of us left. We don’t find much anymore. These men have to be able to bring something home to feed their family.” No day is alike. There is no fixed salary. Result: the miners try their luck here and there, depending on the market value of the minerals and new promising gold veins. They work in a resourceful and non-transparent way here; new pits are dug behind the back of the State, against the rules and the tax collection. As a result, the province is missing out on income that it could use.

Officially 1,5 kg of gold – an untraceable metal – was  traditionally mined in South Kivu in 2018. “In other words: 95% of the gold that miners find disappears into thin air, to a foreign country”, according to an observer of the civil society. “One gram is sold here for 42 dollars,” Jean continues. “Once it arrives in Bukabu, it is already worth 55 dollars. (…) All of us, we are… slaves. We work and the others eat.”

Once they have been mined, the minerals pass through many hands, vendors and cashiers before they are exported, melted and end up in the supply chain of your electronic devices. The profits are mainly made at the top of this chain. The introduction of traceability measures to exclude the import of conflict minerals – tin, tantalum (produced from coltan), tungsten and gold, also known as the 3TG – causes an additional cost. These costs are paid by the miners and their cooperatives. When it comes to social security, no progress is in sight. A reason for satisfaction despite everything: the children and pregnant women seem to have left the certified sites. But what kind of future is there for these people who are competing to find minerals for our digital devices?


Another strategic mineral resource of which most of the world’s reserves are concentrated in Congo is cobalt. This is used in lithium batteries, especially those in our electric cars. Mainly industrial operators exploit this raw material, unlike the 3TG which are mainly acquired through artisanal mining. With 10 million people deriving their income directly or indirectly from it, this artisanal mining is the second largest sector in the country, after agriculture. Both artisanal and industrial mining have a major impact on the environment.

Sister Espérance Musimwa, lawyer at Commission Justice & Paix in Bukavu, has difficulty hiding her emotions on her way to the village of Cinjira. There, at the top of a mountain, of which parts were devoured by a gigantic open mine, live 362 families who were moved by the company Twangiza Mining, a subsidiary of Banro. Far away from everything, they ask for a school, farmland… and they are still waiting for the environmental impact study that is actually legally required. There are not enough data to make a precise assessment of the impact of mining in Congo on the health of its inhabitants and their cattle. A recent report by the UN Environment Organization[1] shows alarming trends in terms of deforestation, species extinction, pollution by heavy metals, resulting in a lack of drinkable water and access to land for the surrounding communities. In the country’s artisanal mines alone some 15 tons of mercury would be used each year. And it gets even worse if we follow the chain further and also take into account the ecological footprint of the production and the use of our electronic devices. It is estimated that by 2020 the digital world will emit as many greenhouse gases as India does with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, about 10% of global emissions. Is it fair to our planet to pay the price for this?


The negative consequences of mining natural raw materials in the East of Congo are well documented. When the connection between conflict minerals and the millions of victims of the big African war were formally recorded by the United Nations, legal measures were taken; through the international conference of the Region of the Great Lakes and through the American Dodd-Frank law that forces manufacturers to give transparency into the supply chain. The European guideline will come into force in 2021. But what really is the effect of these guidelines?

The certificates – the guarantee that the mineral raw materials are not controlled by armed groups and that no child labor nor labor by pregnant women was used – are based on the traceability of the chain “from mine to pocket”. The mechanisms that are currently being used have their limits, especially as not all states apply them in the same way. And although more and more mining sites are now certified, there are still missing links in the chain, which means that mineral raw materials from non-certified sites can still end up in the supply chains. Those are raw materials that may therefore be related to human rights violations. These measures also have perverse effects. The armed groups may have fewer connections with the mines, but they continue to have a strong grip on the natural resources (forestry, fishing, etc.) and on the limited income of the local population (through roadblocks, looting, etc.).

But if the promises of the new Congolese mining code are kept and the artisanal mining sector succeeds in organizing and formalizing itself better, then the profits of the mining sector could be better distributed through real cooperatives and redistribution mechanisms of the planned taxes. For the benefit of the community. Good governance will be the key. And the introduction of a lasting peace in the region will be THE priority which all forces involved must agree on.



The only way to do something on an individual level is to consume less: buy less, waste less and use less. We have to dare to question the race to progress. That is why…

You, #behindthescreens:

  • Think twice before buying a new device.
  • If you buy something, make sure the producer pays attention to sustainability in the supply chain and the production, and preferably buy secondhand or refurbished devices.
  • Use moderately. 10 minutes of a high-resolution video consumes as much as a 2000 Watt electric oven that runs for 5 minutes at full power.
  • Repair as much as you can.
  • Recycle your used devices.


But matters that are so important and complex also require a collective response, a global and ambitious consensus where individual good intentions are not sufficient; that is why …

#behindthescreens we ask a solidary digital world, that reduces the pressure on natural resources and the people who mine them, and that makes companies and states responsible for protecting people and the planet. That is why we ask:

  • Decent working conditions for people at the bottom of the supply chain, by contributing to strong management of the artisanal mining sector, by engaging in conflict resolution in the region and in sustainable aid to the affected communities, for the building of peace and opportunities for sustainable development.
  • An ecological, digital and electronic transition that takes into account the rarity of raw materials and the impact of their extraction through the promotion of consuming less digitally.
  • Quality and durability standards imposed on consumer goods: fight against programmed obsolescence, warranty extension, ecological design, reparability and recyclability.
  • Establish an instrument for monitoring by the FPS Economy, as provided in the European regulation, in order to guarantee responsible supply chains.

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