Violent means to peaceful ends: Computing Congo’s mineral war

The same laptop I am using to write this sermon – a sermon I hope will provide spiritual nourishment and social justice inspiration – has also contributed to environmental harm, poverty and rape. It is directly tied to a system that funds armed groups, pads the pockets of obscenely rich mining executives and encourages low wages and labour abuses.

The culprit is coltan, a mineral found in all laptops and cell phones, as well as some other electronic devices. About 80 percent of the world’s coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to one of the most brutal and unending wars on earth. More than 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict over the past decade. A key element of the conflict is the bitter struggle for control of the immense mineral wealth – including coltan – in eastern Congo. According to the BBC, “the international demand for coltan is one of the driving forces behind the war in the DRC, and the presence of rival militias in the country.” Likewise, the UN has cited the international mineral trade as “the engine of the conflict in the DRC.”

At the root of this global extraction system is a history of colonialism, marked now by our demand for resources from abroad. Our daily reliance on these resources makes it difficult for us to really see the links between our consumption and harm elsewhere, even if that harm is horrific. So we continue fueling the exploitation one cell phone upgrade at a time.

Not clear
But even once we do become aware of the exploitation, the right course of action is not clear. Most people probably won’t throw their cell phones under the next passing vehicle. And even doing so would not exactly bring liberation to the poor in eastern Congo, who’s primary means of survival currently is to catch crumbs falling from the very system that exploits them. Yet the status quo won’t do either. For us to continue benefitting from oppression simply because there’s no easy alternative is hardly an impressive response.

So we find ways to justify our own particular uses of problematic resources. We may decide it’s too hard to live a perfect life and simply draw our own ethical line somewhere in the grey zone. Or we may think our use is particularly justified and the goodness of our actions will offset the destructiveness of our means. I’m using both of these excuses to write this sermon.

Who has greater need of these justifying acrobatics than do-gooders? Resources like coltan have allowed us to do much good in the world. Electronics have allowed us to learn about and respond creatively to conflicts around the world. We can document abuses, coordinate global campaigns and directly save lives, as in the recent case of a British doctor who was able to amputate the leg of someone whose life was in danger in eastern Congo by receiving instructions via text message from a colleague back home. Similarly, fossil fuels enable the travel required to do much good social justice work while also creating much harm.

Ironic situation
We need to own up to the fact that we are in the ironic situation of hugging our global partners with one arm and punching them with the other. It’s good that the British doctor was able to save a life via text message, but that doesn’t change the fact that for all the lives saved by cellular technology in eastern Congo, the extractive industry that cell phones require has played a role in killing millions of others. And the fossil fuels we are burning to get ourselves to these places to offer a helping hand may one day put the homes of the very people we want to assist either in parched land or under water. In many cases, we do-gooders use exploitation to work against exploitation.

So how can we do good in the world without fueling the same systems of exploitation we are trying to work against? Maybe the first step is to embrace the awkward silence created when we admit that our responses to the world’s problems are not adequate. We have no viable plan to make poverty history, stop climate change, end homelessness, or solve any of the other issues we privileged progressives speak so confidently about. The solutions we do offer are almost always tangled in problems.

Uneasy pause
So maybe what’s needed is the uneasy pause that often follows an apology, the silence of repentant people, tired of being on the wrong side of exploitation but not sure how to avoid it. We are trapped in riches every bit as much as others are trapped in poverty, and our collective liberation may just start by sharing an awkward silence. In this case it would be the uncomfortable hush of us privileged people admitting that after years of good intentions gone terribly wrong, we’re shit out of ideas.

I suspect that this quiet paralysis would create space in which the silenced and marginalized people, the ones who have been waiting so patiently and graciously in the midst of the endless noise of their oppressors, to finally speak a new word of liberation.

Dan Leonard works for an international non-profit organization and has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa. He is a member of the Geez board.

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