Rep. Smith goes to Congo (and returns with trade on his mind)

Mining operations in the Congo are often worked by children. Patrice, 15, has worked the Kaniola gold mine in South Kivu since he was eight years old. (Photo by Image Journeys Sasha Lezhnev via Flickr)
Mining operations in the Congo are often worked by children. (Photo by Image Journeys Sasha Lezhnev via Flickr)

From 1998 and 2008, over five million people lost their lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). By its official end, the Second Congo War would become known as the deadliest conflict since World War II. And violence and conflict continue in its wake to this date.

“That’s the big problem in the eastern DRC: it’s been a war zone for the better part of twenty years,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington’s 9th congressional district.

In December, Smith travelled to the eastern part of the country with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) — a nonprofit founded by actor Ben Affleck that focuses on grant-making and advocating for the people of eastern Congo.

“Basically the Eastern Congo Initiative is focused on trying to get people to do business in the DRC, and particularly the eastern DRC,” Smith said. “From the standpoint of agriculture and minerals, this is an incredibly resource-rich part of the world.”

Although the vast majority of the country’s resources remain untapped, it has been estimated that the DRC is sitting on upwards of $24 trillion in total mineral wealth — an amount equal to the gross national product (GNP) of both the United States and all of Europe combined.

But the DRC’s massive resource potential has been a driving factor in the conflicts that have torn the country apart over the last two decades. Rebel groups are continuously fighting for control over the country’s coltan and cassiterite deposits – two key minerals in the construction of cellphones and computers.

Tin is one of several precious metals found in DR Congo that are valuable for use in cell phones and computers. (Photo by of Image Journeys Sasha Lezhnev via Flickr)
Tin is one of several precious metals found in DR Congo that are valuable for use in cell phones and computers. (Photo by of Image Journeys Sasha Lezhnev via Flickr)

In September 2010, DRC president Joseph Kabila suspended all mining operations in the country’s eastern provinces to combat the illegal acquisition of such materials by rebel groups. The ban was lifted just six months later amid criticisms that it was only amplifying the activity of armed groups in the area.

“Let’s face it, the government in Kinshasa is not a model of effectiveness,” Smith said. “Kinshasa’s got to be a part of it but at the end of the day, what’s really going to drive [progress] is the local villagers and local leaders, the folks in the community.”

During his time in the eastern DRC, Smith was introduced to local doctors, farmers and teachers whose projects have seen investment from groups like the ECI. Inspired by the devotion to restoring their communities and the recent success various projects, Smith returned to the U.S. with a cautious optimism towards the strengthening of local economies.

Rep. Adam Smith
Rep. Adam Smith

“Once you can shift your focus away from past grievances and ethnic tensions and just do business to provide for your community, then that can become the focus of people’s actions there instead of the violence,” Smith said.

Unfortunately, shifting that focus is easier said than done, especially if you’ve lived your whole life in a war zone. In 2001, the United Nations estimated that 15 to 30 percent of all newly recruited combats in the country were under the age of 18, a large portion of those were under the age of 12.

As a generation of child soldiers enters adulthood, while the younger generation is still being actively recruited, resources for those who’ve broken away from combat are a necessity for readjustment into civilian life.

“The ECI funds different local projects they think are going to be successful, one of which is taking former child soldiers and getting them job training so they can get a skill and become employable,” Smith said. “These people are trained to be soldiers, they’re trained to fight. And if they don’t have anything else to fall back on, they’re going to go back to what they know.”

What progress has been made in the DRC since the end of the Second Congo War is fragile at best, but by continuing to invest in local projects and offering support for a war-torn citizenry, Smith said he believes the DRC can continue to move forward towards stability and success.

“If there’s a group doing active work over there, support that group financially.” Smith said. “That’s one of the best things you can do. And if you have business interests, look for business opportunities in the DRC.”

Smith played up DRC’s potential economic ties with the Northwest in a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, citing Seattle coffee and chocolate companies as markets for Congolese products.

So can properly focused investment help revive a country divided by years of conflict and struggle? Only time will tell.