War, coltan and conservation

Digging a grave for King Kong?

Published in The Economist, Science & technology section
Jul 31st 2003 edition

[this piece was written as a result of my appeals to the science editor, who then sent a journalist to cover our meeting in Durban, South Africa]

Congo’s gorillas are in trouble. But they may yet be saved

WITH people still killing each other in horrific numbers in eastern Congo, why worry about the destruction of a national park and its few hundred gorillas? Because, according to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, one is closely tied to the other. To press the point, and to try to find a solution that helps both people and gorillas, the fund has just held a meeting in Durban, attended by representatives of rebel soldiers, local people, the park’s authorities, mineral traders, conservationists and Congo’s government.     
    In the past decade, thousands of people, both soldiers and civilians, have fled into the Kahuzi Biega National Park, a swathe of tropical forest near Congo’s border with Rwanda. The refuge, a United Nations World Heritage Site, has duly suffered from forest clearance, charcoal burning, hunting and harvesting. Its 10,000 plant species, 220 bird varieties and 131 kinds of mammals are threatened. Of the 350 elephants living there five years ago, all but two have been killed for meat and ivory. And although most locals have long refused to kill or eat gorillas, gun-carrying refugees have no such scruples. Poaching and the clearance of bamboo, a favourite food, have cut a population of 258 gorillas in the park five years ago to some 110 now. Of 17,000 gorillas counted in the whole of eastern Congo in 1999, perhaps no more than 1,000 remain. 
    But war alone is not responsible. Or, more subtly, one of the causes of the war is also a cause of deforestation. Coltan (colombite-tantalite, to give its full name), is a valuable mineral spewed out by the local volcanoes. It is found scattered widely over the area, including in the park. That means it is well suited to exploitation by small groups of “artisanal” miners such as those in the picture above. These people need space to live in, fuel and food, which puts further pressure on the forest. 
    Tantalum oxide, which is extracted from coltan, is used to make some of the electronic components in mobile phones, computers, hand-held games and pagers. Tantalum is also used in jet engines, car air-bags, surgical instruments and other gadgetry. Demand for coltan has thus mushroomed over the past decade, pushing prices to a peak of $840 a kilo in 2000.

Over the past two years conservationists and the United Nations have tried to stem demand for Congo’s coltan, telling companies to get the mineral elsewhere. The UN has said that any trade with rebel-held parts of the country is illegal and must stop. Last year European activists, who complained of “blood on their handsets”, persuaded Nokia, Motorola and other users not to buy their coltan from Congo. Even Arthur C. Clarke, a science-fiction writer, and Leonardo DiCaprio, a film star, have thrown their weight behind the campaign. 
    But coltan is coltan. It does not come with a “country of origin” label on it, so the embargo is a leaky one at best. In any case, as Kevin d’Souza, a mining consultant who reported in April on the state of the park on behalf of the Dian Fossey fund, puts it, those who push for a ban on Congo’s coltan trade have “misdiagnosed the real problem”. They have failed to consider the needs of miners, hungry ex-farmers and displaced people, who must find some way to survive. If they are stopped from mining, these people may turn to more destructive activities, such as hunting for “bushmeat”. 
    Instead, says Mr d’Souza, the miners should be helped to look for deposits of coltan outside the park, and to find ways of working that are less destructive to the forest. Food aid, micro-credit, training and gifts of farm tools and seeds could persuade them to give up digging inside the park. Delegates at the meeting in Durban also talked of setting up a pilot project near the park, to show miners how to work more profitably by using proper equipment and forming co-operatives. 
    Getting everybody to recognise that the park will not be safe until the local people feel more secure is a useful start. At least as important, the men with the guns may be changing their minds, too. This week the government gave details of a new mining code for the country, which would protect the park but encourage more mining elsewhere. Meanwhile the rebels have been saying for a while (although they cannot yet prove) that they have ordered mining and gorilla hunting to stop in the park. 
    In part, that is because both sides are slowly coming to realise that protection of the park and its resources will bring more benefits to them than will its destruction. Indeed, some people think that the coltan traders could make the gorillas an asset. Bill Gates and several other hi-tech tycoons are keen gorilla spotters. They might arrange for payment of a premium on coltan from well-run Congolese mining sites (outside the park), and could then exploit the sort of consumer sentiment that drove the “blood on their handsets” campaign to sell “gorilla-safe” gadgets, rather as supermarkets sell “dolphin-safe” tuna. If this happened, everybody would have an interest in making the park secure. King Kong could yet avoid being buried. 

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