Boom Town

What happened when Wall Street reform came to Congo’s frontier mining towns

16 min readFeb 11, 2016

By Holly Dranginis

Rubaya town, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: Holly Dranginis / Enough Project

She never wanted to be a miner. Daphrose grew up in the rainforest, where Congo’s mountain gorillas are protected from hunters by an elite group of park rangers. When she was a teenager, Daphrose had no such protection against armed rebels, who terrorized her community. It was 2004 and her town was under siege. Attacks in the area by an array of militias targeted civilians and forced the shuttering of local aid efforts. She and her family were forced to flee.

Daphrose didn’t know at the time that this kind of violence was erupting all over the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo), an extension of the armed conflict that began in the mid-1990s. When she first sought refuge in the mining town of Rubaya, she lived in a United Nations displaced persons camp. But Rubaya wasn’t the safe haven she was looking for.

“Rubaya quickly became too dangerous to stay in,” Daphrose told me early one morning near the town’s busy market. “I’d have to flee now and then because of the war. The CNDP and the national army were fighting.” The CNDP was a Rwanda-backed rebel militia notorious for occupying mining territories and brutalizing civilians. Today, its former leader Bosco Ntaganda is facing charges in The Hague for war crimes including systematic rape and slavery.

Rubaya’s hilltop artisanal mine. In the early 2000s, violence in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo followed a pattern. Where there were lucrative minerals in the earth, armed groups flocked. Photo: Holly Dranginis

In the early 2000s, violence in eastern Congo followed a pattern: where there were lucrative minerals in the earth, armed groups flocked, sometimes invading from across a nearby border. In the 2004 Human Rights Watch essay, “Engine of War,” the authors Arvind Ganesan and Alex Vines write about complex international networks of illicit mining linked to Congo’s then-raging armed conflict. Alongside the essay’s text appears a photo of a boy, with the caption, “At the Rubaya Sunday market miners sell a highly lucrative powder called coltan, which is used by U.S., European, and Canadian manufacturers of chips for cellular phones and computers.”

Recognizing this link between warfare and a shadowy trade in minerals, advocacy groups and policymakers launched an effort to decouple American business from Congo’s deadly violence, in hopes of promoting peace.

Wall Street reform in central Africa?

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to address widespread financial and trade practices that had led to a global economic meltdown two years prior. The law included a transparency provision requiring thousands of U.S. companies to publicly disclose if they sourced minerals from central Africa and what they were doing to determine if the sale of those minerals funded armed conflict.

Though it consists of only a few pages buried on page 838, this regulation — Section 1502, and the SEC rule that it mandated — has nonetheless garnered a significant measure of public attention. The SEC’s “Conflict Minerals Rule” has triggered widespread debate, including in media coverage, Congressional hearings, and a battle in the U.S. District Court of Appeals over claims that it violates corporate free speech. The arguments sometimes roam, at one moment dipping deep into the tedium of case law from the 1970s, at another dissecting the exact makeup of products like Mylar birthday balloons. But it typically boils down to two main questions: How will companies comply with this rule? And, can it actually support peace in Congo?

In July, I went to eastern Congo — specifically to Rubaya — to talk to people there, to hear what they thought about the impact of this U.S. regulation. I wanted to know what life was like in their communities before Section 1502, and what it’s like now. If they experienced change, what caused it? I wanted to know not only what they observed of minerals reform, but how they felt about it, what visions they had for Congo’s future, and what they thought were the best ways to make those hopes a reality.

Congo’s Switzerland

Rubaya is a small town on the edge of Masisi territory, a region of the country that locals call “the Switzerland of Congo.” Winding footpaths make tiny veins in rolling hills, leading up to terraced farming plots and down to streams where residents collect water. The Switzerland moniker is less apt when recalling the wicked history of violence Rubaya has endured. Today, however, the town is slowly steadying its legs.

Driving through Masisi’s open greenery on the approach to Rubaya, clues crop up that something unique is just around the corner. Text-heavy signs appear, some signaling a Congolese company’s title to the tantalum mining concession ahead, others advertising a mining cooperative’s stake in the riches surrounding that same concession. Tantalum is a gray-colored metal, exceptionally hard and heavy, and essential for making capacitors and resistors in electronics. And carved into the hills of this region are some of Congo’s most valuable tantalum mines.

Mines carved into the rolling hills above Rubaya, in a region known as “Congo’s Switzerland.” The Switzerland moniker is less apt when recalling the history of violence the area has endured. Photo credit: Holly Dranginis / Enough Project

Approaching Rubaya’s mine, the roads get dustier, and the elevation climbs. Crowds start to swell along the sides of the roads, now populated with timber-framed kiosks, their tarp ceilings flapping in the wind. Motorcyclists skim past with more speed and purpose. The mine itself appears above, a hill skinned bald by miners in pursuit of the tantalum tucked deep in the crevices of Rubaya’s earth, towering and blanched white in contrast to the deep reds and greens of surrounding hilltops. A few hundred yards to the east of the artisanal mining area is a wide hole in the hillside, dark and gaping, the industrial mining pit operated by the Congolese mining company Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB).

And below, a bustling town reveals itself. Glittering with corrugated rooftops, uniform and sprawling, Rubaya appears lively and full of promise.

“They were the boss of the operation”

“There have been a lot of armed groups who have taken control of this town,” explained Gerver Hakizimana one late afternoon in Rubaya. Hakizimana is the chair of Rubaya’s civil society association and a Rubaya native. “They would pillage, grab our belongings, and flee into the forest,” he said, drumming his fingers on the wooden table. The dimly lit bar where we met belonged to the only major hotel in town, a yolk-yellow house with a mural splashed on the market-facing sidewall that read, “Sun City.”

“Battles in this town, homes burned down,” he remembered. “People died. Residents would go into hiding and live in the mountains.”

Hillside homes near sites of artisanal mining in Rubaya. “There have been a lot of armed groups who have taken control of this town,” Gerver Hakizimana, chair of Rubaya’s civil society association, told me. “They would pillage, grab our belongings, and flee into the forest.” Photo: Holly Dranginis

“The armed groups would make people work.” Forced labor was common, he told me. “That included children being forced into armed groups — right here in Rubaya, and elsewhere.”

Were the armed groups doing the mining? I asked. “No,” he responded quickly, then paused, recalling. “They wouldn’t mine. They were the boss of the operation. They’d watch over everyone mining.”

We wrapped up, and he shook my hand across the table. His brow furrowed and he looked up urgently. “Please,” he said to me. “It wasn’t just the CNDP that were here before. Don’t leave out Mai Mai, Nyatura, Raia Mutomboki, M23 ‒ all of them were fighting inside here.” Over the course of the past decade, nearly a dozen discrete armed groups have been active in the area, including local defense forces — civilian men armed and galvanized by Congolese army generals to fight foreign threats — playing a role in the deadliest war since World War II, with over 5.4 million dead by 2007.

“More or less, it’s better now”

Today, Rubaya and other mineral-rich areas are showing signs of progress. “More or less it’s better now. We are sleeping deeply,” Daphrose told me.

“Five years ago, people in the mines worked in shambles,” Gerver had noted at the hotel earlier. “Today, that’s totally different. Now they’re working in an organized way. When there is chaos or weapons in the mine, the mining police step in. We know that anyone who messes with the mining who is wearing a military uniform will be kicked out.”

Motorcyclists on the road to Rubaya’s mine. Photo: Holly Dranginis

According to many, the mining police are a welcome step up from repressive army officials or brutal rebel militias. It’s also an improvement recognized by law: by the terms of mining regulations, mines will only earn “conflict-free” status if they are free of armed groups, including the national army. The new civilian guard is not without its own shortcomings, however: in other mining communities in eastern Congo, mining police have been accused of bribery and extortion.

Is there risk of another full-scale armed conflict here? I asked Gerver. “I think when we’re here, we can’t know where war comes from. We just bear the consequences. So if there’s any war today, it’s on the government of Congo to do its job and protect people.”

In Rubaya, the government seems to be taking up that call. “Now that the state took over,” Gerver told me, “No more armed groups.” Moises Buchiki, who proudly serves as a police commissioner in Rubaya, explained, “When the M23 rebels were here, my wish was always to get more staff so I could have a strong team.” After three years, Moises says he got his wish — during M23’s reign in 2012, he reported there were 25 police in the area, and that now there are 125, including 30 mining police.

But Rubaya’s security remains on shaky ground, and the government’s involvement has its dark side.

Congolese army units are deployed in areas near Rubaya and throughout Masisi territory because the region remains vulnerable to armed group activity by rebels like the APCLS, Nyatura, and Raia Mutomboki. According to a local news report and the project manager of a local human rights organization, the state’s role as sentinel led to violence just last month. On January 13, roughly a dozen Congolese army troops entered a minerals storehouse in town, reportedly dispatched on orders to confiscate minerals. Civilian miners intervened, believing the army units were staging a raid. The troops fired on the civilians, and nine people were injured.

Overall, though, consistent with its objective, Dodd-Frank 1502 has been a catalyst for transparency along a complex supply chain. That has helped to reduce violence in many mining areas. Before Dodd-Frank 1502, there was no structure in place to distinguish conflict mines from conflict-free mines.

A roadside sign marks the site of a local miners’ cooperative. In 2014, multi-stakeholder teams made up of U.N. officials, Congolese civil society, and business and government representatives, under the auspices of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), validated Rubaya’s mine as conflict-free. Photo: Holly Dranginis

Justine Masika Bihamba, founder of the advocacy organization, Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles in eastern Congo told me, “Before, mining was almost fully controlled by armed groups: criminal rebel commanders trading minerals with neighboring countries. Today, let’s admit they shy away from doing that. And if we’re honest, part of that is because of Dodd-Frank. It came to shine a light on those illicit actors and deals.”

Now, an emerging certification mechanism run by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) is underway. And, for the first time in Congo’s history, mines have begun to be validated as conflict-free. As of January 2016, 166 mines in eastern Congo had been assessed ‒ by multi-stakeholder teams made up of U.N. officials, Congolese civil society, and business and government representatives ‒ and validated as conflict-free.

The law and related reforms have created a two-tier market in which untraceable tin, tantalum, and tungsten (“3T”) minerals sell at a lower price than verified conflict-free minerals, making 3T mining less lucrative for armed groups. By 2014, the International Peace Information Service found that 70 percent of 3T mines it surveyed in three provinces in eastern Congo were not controlled by armed actors. That’s in contrast to 2010, when an expert U.N. panel found that in two of those provinces “almost every mining deposit [was] controlled by a military group.”

Recently, a sharp decline in global commodities prices has slowed some large-scale investment in the region’s minerals sector, posing a different set of concerns for mining communities.

But despite the economic downturn, the structural reforms have led to social benefits. “When I came back to Rubaya in 2010,” Ayuby Andrea, a food trader, told me, “Children in mines was commonplace. Now it’s not.” Some children in Rubaya are in school, some aren’t. At $7 per semester per child, it depends on if parents can afford it, Daphrose told me. But what is clear to everyone I talked to in Rubaya is that children should not be in the mines.

Daphrose admitted it’s not perfect. Children still help at the mine sometimes, she told me. They wash and sort minerals along the river below. “But they don’t go in the mine shafts anymore, and they don’t carry the heavy bags down the mountain.”

For children reliant on mining for income or to support their families, UNICEF has piloted transition programs in collaboration with local communities, but they haven’t reached everyone in need.

“She actually wants him to be president”

Daphrose now lives in an informal settlement near Rubaya’s central market. She can’t afford to send her children to school.

Daphrose with her son, outside a pharmacy in Rubaya. Photo: Holly Dranginis / Enough Project

“I hope my little one becomes a teacher,” she told me. Not a miner? I asked. She narrowed her eyes, perhaps not wanting to disappoint me, then shook her head. “I think people who go into mining do it for lack of other opportunities. And that’s not what I want for my children.”

“That job is meant to be for men, not women.” But she does it for survival. She carries minerals from high up at the mine down to the washing stations — crooks in the river where minerals are sorted from dirt and rock. She told me she makes a dollar a day.

“Our main job is farming,” she said. But that too is influenced by the economic health of the mining sector. “The miners buy crops from us — so when mining is down, it’s difficult for us.” Some Congolese say the whole territory of Masisi is so fertile, it could be the breadbasket of Congo. But the roads to market are so bad that farming can be a dead-end pursuit. The Congolese government hasn’t invested in basic infrastructure in this part of the country. Mining becomes one of the only viable options for income.

One of the main critiques of Dodd-Frank 1502 is that it triggered a de facto sourcing embargo on the region. Require companies that source from Congo to do extra reporting, and those companies will pull out of Congo, the argument goes. And that will lead to job loss among artisanal miners who have no connections to armed groups. Push companies to avoid buying untraceable minerals, and end funding to armed rebels, but you’ll also hurt the livelihoods of ordinary citizens reliant on informal mining. These critiques are real.

“Yes there are problems with livelihoods,” says Justine, the human rights activist in Goma, “And that is the fault of mismanaged state governance.”

Moises, the police commissioner, explained, “It’s been a month that people are staying in town, not going to mine, and when you ask why, they tell you, ‘Why should I go to the mine when I’m not making money?’ They are living on their savings.” They could go back to farming, he said, but the money is not the same. In 2014, when Rubaya’s mine was validated conflict-free, economic opportunities increased. The number of artisanal miners rose. Now, some miners are hurt by delayed payments by the concession owner. Throughout the country, artisanal miners lack access to formal markets and alternative livelihoods as Congo transitions to a transparent, licit minerals market.

For Daphrose, economic hardship in mining also impacts her farming income. She hopes to be able to afford to send her youngest child, now 10 months old, to school when he’s old enough. She told me in earnest why she’d rather her son be a teacher than a miner. Her friend leaned over to me, smiling, and whispered, “She actually wants him to be President.”

“Something needed to be done”

“When you’re in need, you want instant solutions,” Justine, the Goma-based activist told me. “I do validate a few of the critiques [of Dodd Frank 1502], but there will always be critiques of something that is there. But the conflict was fed by the exploitation of minerals. Something needed to be done.”

Western media and even U.S. courts have focused on measuring the current effects of Dodd-Frank 1502, with local voices used primarily for immediate observations in their communities. Something else emerged from my interviews in Congo: a poignant demand for accountability, with an eye to the future, and a clear link between the American law and sustainable progress.

“Without Dodd-Frank, our government would not have been forced to talk about traceability,” Justine explained. “Now there’s a certification process. That’s an impact.”

A view over Rubaya. After decades of widespread armed violence, the mining town is experiencing a period of relative peace. “For me, security needed to come first,” Congolese naturalist Dominique Bikaba explained to me, reflecting on the impact on the region of section 1502, the conflict minerals provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Photo: Holly Dranginis

“There are still serious problems — look at the ADF rebels killing civilians in Bunia. Gold in southern Lubero is controlled by the FDLR rebels and fueled by international business. Neighboring countries live off of this cross-border trade,” Justine pointed out. To fix these things, she said, Congo needs better governance, needs an end to corruption, needs more community programs. Attacks on the law only set progress back.

“We need both good governance and traceability,” she said. “Police should do their jobs. Families should be protected. But meanwhile, a process is in place to keep armed groups out of mining.

“Because of these international pressures, traceability isn’t useless, and my government is accountable.”

The conflict minerals rule was never seen as a panacea to end armed violence in Congo. No single law could tackle such a goal in a country whose wars are sustained by much more than minerals.

This delineation — between what the law is meant to do and the general welfare of Congo — came out in interviews with miners, villagers, and activists. Their belief is that transparency and oversight will help end the violent, informal system that helped armed groups profit and replace it with one that benefits Congo’s people.

Meanwhile, the Congolese government has a role to play, according to activists in eastern Congo. Justine insists, “Now if those guys in our government don’t manage the traceability system and the income from minerals the way they should — transparently and free of corruption — that’s not the fault of the law.”

“Security needed to come first”

“People can say, oh Dodd-Frank didn’t look at the local economy or create jobs, but for me, security needed to come first.” I was sitting around a dinner table in Bukavu, a city on the bottom tip of Lake Kivu, 80 miles due south from Rubaya. Congolese naturalist Dominique Bikaba was reflecting on Dodd-Frank’s impact on the region. Wearing a good-humored smile and pocketed khaki vest, Dominique looked more poised to go birding than to discuss minerals reform, but he lit up as he talked.

“It was time for our government to do something — and traceability was part of pushing that,” he said.

Raised in an indigenous pygmy community, Dominique grew up on the outskirts of Kahuzi Biega National Park, where illegal mining formed a sinister intersection between armed groups, conservation efforts, local land grabs, and the national army. “This law, once it passed, led companies to stop buying. Military officers could no longer sell their minerals, so they rushed to leave,” he explained. “If they had stayed, they’d still be exploiting minerals. When they left, the women and children who were enslaved, were freed.

“For me, getting those people out of the mining areas was the most important thing I’ve ever seen,” Dominique told me.

While ridding armed groups from mining areas was one of Section 1502’s central goals, the law’s drafters didn’t ignore the potential negative impacts on local economies and peace-abiding informal miners. Section 5 of the original “Conflict Minerals Trade Act” introduced in 2009, and the legislative predecessor to the final version of Section 1502, included provisions for livelihood support.

That crucial language never made it into the final law, and programs to help those hurt by the de facto embargo have been too little, and late. With increased advocacy and the negative economic impacts of the embargo starting to show, though, the U.S. State Department and others are finally stepping up to fill the gap.

Daphrose hopes to be able to send her youngest child, now 10 months old, to school when he’s old enough. Her friend whispered to me, “She actually wants him to be President.” Photo: Holly Dranginis

Miners in Rubaya and activists in Goma told me their biggest hope is that companies will buy conflict-free minerals in Congo, and that is starting to be possible. Support for alternative livelihoods, savings and loans programs for miners, and new conflict-free sourcing initiatives to encourage companies to remain customers of the region are now slowly taking shape. As the transition to a formal economy takes shape, and as support for miners is now increasing, the idea of abandoning conflict-minerals regulation seems to many a non-sequitur.

Like Justine, Dominique acknowledged the pursuit of a fully conflict-free Congolese minerals trade will take time. “You can’t change things in one minute,” he said. “It’s a process. Unfortunately, we didn’t set up procedures to help with the economy, and of course when the transition started happening people lost jobs.

“But rebuilding the economy can be done. The thing that seemed impossible was establishing security — and Dodd-Frank helped us with that. Even officials here, they know the law has helped. For the first time, there is data,” he says, marveling at the idea of official monitoring in a sector once run by warlords. “How do you think that happened?”

Beacon of progress

What’s going on in Rubaya is much bigger than Dodd-Frank. It’s a small town subject to the ebb and flow of a vast and historically unforgiving ocean of political and economic variables. But for its part, the conflict minerals regulation has begun to lead to the positive change its drafters had in mind. People in Rubaya and across eastern Congo have lived through the unique brutality of a war in which armed groups battle over vast treasures in the earth. Some, including in Rubaya, are relieved now that armed groups are no longer in control in many areas. Communities elsewhere are still in the grips of that same brand of chaos, facing the daily or weekly flight from violence that Daphrose grew accustomed to during her childhood.

For those who know the history of this town, Rubaya is a beacon — a signal that safer, more stable mining territories could be a reality in the east. The people there are working together toward a future that is a little bit more attainable because of an exotic law enacted thousands of miles away.

Holly Dranginis is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project.




The Enough Project works to support peace, democratic governance, and an end to mass atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones.