How Sony’s new console created a war in Africa

The rising price of minerals can have bloody consequences in Africa. This is what Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner and Mathias Thoenig observed in a recent study.
According to the Nicolas Berman study, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner and Mathias Thoenig, conducted throughout Africa, the boom in mineral prices in 2000 could account for up to a quarter of the conflicts in Africa. The violence is spreading even beyond the mining areas. With the money earned, the rebels deploy their battles by expanding their areas of influence.

“Diamonds of blood”, “gold of conflicts”, “bloody coltan” the appellations are many to recall the war to which the most greedy are engaged. Are there ever minerals without violence? This topic has been widely discussed, but few studies have shown the causal relationship between rising mineral prices and conflicts. This is the purpose of this analysis, published in the American Economic Review and covering the whole of Africa from 1997 to 2010.

The “boom” of minerals

Between 2000 and 2009, the price of minerals has more than doubled on average. This “mineral boom” has been largely driven by the role of new powers, such as China or India, which have significantly increased their demand. In 1997 an ounce of gold was worth $338 and in 2010, it reached $1084!

The consequences on the ground are just as explosive… Over the period studied, a quarter of the conflicts observed on the African continent can be explained by the rise in these world prices.

By crisscrossing Africa by 55 km by 55 km zones, the authors have examined the impact of the increase in the price of 14 ores. These results are related to a geo-localized database of violent events (from riots to civil conflicts and battles between armed groups) throughout Africa

This grid at a local scale goes beyond the border and reduces the weight of state characteristics. Electoral conflicts, inter-ethnic or religious wars do not interfere with the results. Each zone can be compared to its neighbor, which is in all respects similar to it, the presence of minerals aside. The authors argue that the price increase has the direct consequence of increasing violence. How does the course of the minerals actually affect the field?.

Finance the advance of the militia

Rackets, extortions or profits: rebel groups feed through the rent of these mines. When the state is weak, the mines are coveted by the armed groups who make them their rear base. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, shaken for more than 20 years by the war, more than 40 militias crisscross the territory. Their appetite is up to the riches of the region: 70% of global reserves of coltan, gold reserves, diamond, tin… Especially since the absence of the state is patent. Between May 2012 and November 2013, a group called the M23 established itself on Congolese territory by developing a real administration and creating positions of Minister of the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture.

Conquering a mine allows rebels to generate income by taxing production or the local population, or to benefit from logistical support from mining companies. This system is often based on the promise of protection for local communities. With the large quantity of money collected, the militias can finance their activities. As the price of minerals increases, their combat capacity increases and they can expand their areas of influence.

Following the appropriation of a mining territory, the study shows that rebel groups are three times more likely to deploy their fighting to other regions than groups that conquer territory without ore. This escalation of violence is still visible up to 1000 kilometers around. The challenge goes beyond the simple local context. To support the point, the authors identify the main ethnic group of each armed group and show that an increase in the price of minerals exploited in their territory of origin allows them to extend their fighting.

A PlayStation for Christmas?

It is the consumption of developed countries that varies the price of minerals in large part. The demand for electronic products can permanently undermine the regions that supply minerals. With the announcement of Sony’s release of a new PlayStation in early 2000, increased demand for coltan, one of its major components, has led to an increase in its price from $90 to $590 per kg. The Democratic Republic of Congo has emerged as an ideal terrain for foreign suppliers. Raul Sanchez de la Sierra analyzed the impact on the ground through a study of 380 mining areas. According to this economist, following the rise in prices, the militias multiplied in coltan sites and the violence increased. Despite lower prices, they remained on the territory, causing long-term disruption for surrounding villages. Through its effect on world prices, our consumption can, therefore, create a real shock wave.

Mined ground and disseminated silver

Do price rises benefit states? Apart from South Africa, all the other countries studied by Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner and Mathias Thoenig are small producers of minerals on a global scale. Yet it is on their soil that these minerals are found.

In the Great Lakes region, the path followed by money often borrows unofficial channels. According to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, nearly two tons of gold per month go by the fingers of the local authorities of Ituri (a region in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), while officially, only 33 kilos are carried over a year! The same pattern is repeated for coltan. A report of the United Nations Security Council in 2014 denounced the evaporation of Congolese minerals, implicating Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. The numbers are suspicious, to say the least. While the Democratic Republic of Congo holds 70% of the world’s reserves, between 2013 and 2014 Rwanda was the world’s largest exporter of coltan.

Who pays the price?

Militias are not the only disruptive elements in these areas. But among those who pay the price, people are the first affected. Forced labor, cheap labor, disrespect for individual rights are the daily lot of African miners. Behind this almost gratuitous labor force, the risk of riot or revolt also increases insecurity.

For the two researchers Bazzi and Blattman the mines are real open powder magazines. The rising price of minerals leads to greed and the interest of neighbors. New mining economic opportunities and insecurity are generating significant population movements and socio-demographic changes, further destabilizing the regions. And behind the excessive exploitation of mining sites, environmental issues sometimes turn into territorial disputes.

Are mining resources and violence intrinsic? Through their article, the authors Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner, and Mathias Thoenig underline the risk. Multinational companies and states cannot remain spectators — even actors! — of these abuses. To counter this trend, they can build a solid foundation by tackling corruption and promoting transparency.

In their study, Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner, and Mathias Thoenig set out to analyze the impact of transparency measures on violence in Africa. This is the subject of our next article.

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