Archive for cobalt

Resources, conflict and Japan

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 November, 2010 by Virgil

Mining in the DRC. Photo by FairPhone under a CC Licence

It is easy to forget how closely connected the world is. After all, the media have very little time/space for events happening beyond the borders of the country in which they are based, unless people from the home country are directly involved. Nationalism is a powerful force in most countries in the world and patriotism helps sell the news.

But the world is irreversibly and closely connected at all levels. Talking about how events in the outside world do not affect ‘us’ is a reflection of how unaware we are about this reality. No stones have been left unturned in modern history in our search for the cheapest possible goods and services. Goods that can be produced locally will be shipped in from the other side of the globe if government subsidies or getting away with impossibly cheap labour make those goods just that little bit cheaper. If those the acquisition of such goods contributes to a conflict, political instability, or the illegal occupation of another country, then so be it.

The key for those selling the cheaper goods from distant lands is ensuring that the consumer is unaware of what had happened for the goods to reach them, or the effect that this business is having on a conflict or on the environment. This is usually not that hard – the news media serve as a powerful barrier to understanding what is happening in the outside world. In any case, the world is an extremely complex place (which is a major inhibitor in itself), and consumers have a strong interest in what is happening closer to home, not to mention in low prices.

The nationalist slant of the media, while rampant throughout the world, is perhaps particularly pronounced in Japan. Just 1 or 2 pages of a 30-page newspaper are devoted to events in the outside world, and coverage levels of the world on television news are arguably even lower. This makes the Japanese public highly insulated from awareness about the economic connections between Japan and many conflict-prone countries.

But the connections are undeniable. Consider some of these facts:

It has been estimated that some 90 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum (used in capacitors in electronic goods) for 2009 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues, and where armed groups (the national army included) still control many of the mines. The powerful Japanese electronics industry cannot do without this mineral.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is also coming from the DRC. Much of Japan’s supply comes via Finland. Demand for cobalt is skyrocketing because of a massive increase in lithium ion battery production necessary for making ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars in Japan. The mining of cobalt in the DRC is far from being environmentally friendly.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire (but you will not find a single bar of chocolate made in that country). Few chocolate eaters in Japan know this or have any idea that there was a conflict in that country – one fuelled by the illicit trade in this commodity (known in this case as ‘hot chocolate’).

Roughly 70 percent of the frozen octopus imported by Japan is from Morocco. At least that is what the labels on the packs say. But a sizable portion of this ‘Moroccan’ octopus is actually coming from the waters of Western Sahara. The bulk of this ‘country’ remains under Moroccan occupation (incidentally, Western Sahara is a member of the African Union, Morocco is not). The occupied zone is protected by a great wall of sand (2,500 km long) and the world’s longest continuous minefield. The EU is coming under fire because of a fisheries agreement with Morocco that enables it access to Western Saharan waters, although the outcry is limited because media coverage of the situation is so low. With media coverage of this situation virtually non-existent in Japan, Japanese imports of octopus from Western Sahara have sparked no outcries at all.

These are just some of the connections (and I haven’t even mentioned oil). The world is certainly globalizing at a rapid pace. Perhaps it’s time the media started to think about catching on and catching up.

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Congo Week in Osaka 2010

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 31 October, 2010 by Virgil

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not over. Insecurity still plagues parts of the east, and horrifying stories of rape and other forms of human rights abuse still emerge. And in case we needed reminding, in October, the UN released its controversial Mapping Report, which chronicles the numerous human rights abuses that took place in Zaire/DRC from 1993 to 2003.

Attempts to raise concern in the news and in online forums about such issues invariably raise comments along the lines of “it’s not our concern” or “it’s up to them to sort out their own problems”. Accepting this means accepting the idea that the rape and killing of innocent civilians should not concern us as long as it is happening beyond our national borders (or as long as the skin of the victims is not white). It also means failing to notice the role in the conflict of corporations and governments in the ‘developed’ world, and the benefits that we consumers enjoy in the form of electronic products made with exceptionally cheap raw materials that originate in the DRC.

For those of us who choose not to accept these notions, it helps to raise our voices (preferably in unison) and spread the word from time to time. Congo Week offers an opportunity to do this. This year, from 17-23 October, under the coordination of the Friends of the Congo, groups from 50 countries around the world held a variety of activities to raise awareness about the issues in the DRC and encourage action. This year Osaka was named as one of the ten key cities (along with London, Paris, Washington, New York, Toronto, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Goma) to anchor the movement. We tried not to disappoint.

SESCO, a Japanese group that assists schools in the DRC kicked off the week with a lecture and panel discussion on the issue. Osaka University took up the torch with a lecture followed by an informal forum (over cups of coffee from the Kivus in the DRC) via Skype with Goma in the DRC and Washington D.C. A representative of World Vision in Goma was kind enough to speak to the students in Osaka about the situation there, and Maurice Carney (Executive Director of Friends of the Congo) was kind enough to be up and talking about the issues at 6am. These events were coordinated by the Kansai chapter of the Japan-Rwanda Youth Conference. The week was capped off by a very successful theatrical event run by Peace Village. A play written specifically for Congo Week brought home the connections between the DRC’s minerals, the conflict, and Japan in a way that no lecture could – suffice it to say that tears were shed.

We hope to repeat some of these events in the near future. There is an open offer for more dailogue between the students at Osaka University and the Friends of the Congo, and the play was too good to be shelved after just one night. The struggle to raise awareness and get a serious dialogue going about this global problem must go on.

It is not an easy struggle. The media in Japan continues to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this conflict and its global implications. The Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s leading newspaper), which (like the rest of Japan’s media) generally tends to ignore most of what goes on beyond Japan’s borders, devoted more coverage in one day to the rescue of 33 miners in Chile than it did to five years of conflict in the DRC.

Japan cannot keep its head in the sand forever. Sanyo has just announced that it will increase its production of lithium ion batteries tenfold over the next five years to meet demands for supposedly environmentally friendly hybrid/electric cars. Cobalt is a key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, and some 41 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC. The connection between the controversial mining industry in the DRC and key industries in Japan continues to strengthen.

In Maurice Carney’s message to the students in Osaka, the reminder that what we do here in Japan to raise awareness about the DRC serves also as a source of encouragement for the people in the DRC was inspiring. So to the people of the Congo, from those of us here in Japan who know and who care, know that you are not alone.

Debt, dirt and blood

Posted in Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2 July, 2010 by Virgil

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has just ‘celebrated’ 50 years of independence from brutal Belgian rule. One of the birthday presents it received was a debt write-off of around 10 billion USD from the IMF/World Bank, which essentially frees up 15 percent of the national budget, hopefully for things like health, education, reconstruction and security sector reform.

Now before we start patting anyone on the back, let us not forget that most of this debt was incurred by Mobutu (the kleptocratic President who was propped up by the USA and these international financial institutions for the duration of the Cold War) under dubious circumstances. Let us not also forget that the DRC has continued to be charged interest on those loans through the nose (the DRC has been forking out at least 300 million USD every year just to pay off the interest!), or that realistically speaking, the DRC was never going to be able to pay the debt off anyway.

But there was one rather sinister detail hiding behind the whole deal. The Canadian government had been trying to delay/block the debt write-off. Why? Because of a mining deal between the DRC government and a Canada-based mining company (First Quantum) that had gone bad. The DRC’s Supreme Court had annulled mining rights (for copper/cobalt in Kolwezi) on a number of mining titles, and the company was seeking arbitration on the matter. The mining rights were allegedly being taken over by a company registered in that haven for secrecy and tax evasion – the British Virgin Islands.

While the debt relief did go through, the attempt to block/delay it was really a nasty move on the part of the Canadian government, particularly given the current state of the DRC – the conflict, the poverty, the suffering. Just last month the UN warned that there is a “catastrophic” shortfall in aid for the DRC that threatens to leave hundreds of thousands of people there with vital health and food assistance cut off. Not that this made headlines, though – the media blackout goes on.

This affair is hot on the heels of another natural resource exploitation dispute in the DRC – over oil drilling rights in Lake Albert. London-based Tullow Oil had its concessions taken over by another company registered in the British Virgin Islands – reportedly one without any expertise in oil drilling. This company is apparently owned by the nephew of South African President, Jacob Zuma. But it has been alleged that Israeli diamond tycoon Dan Gertler (who is close to DRC President Kabila) is behind both the takeovers – the oil in Lake Albert and the copper/cobalt in Kolwezi.

This kind of dealing would look bad in any impoverished country, but let us also remind ourselves of the blood that has been shed over these riches. This conflict has been by far the deadliest of our times, with violence and conflict-related illness and starvation having killed millions. And while the objectives of the many and varied parties to the conflict (and their backers) are also many and varied, the battle over control of minerals such as tantalum, tin and gold has always loomed large as a factor fuelling the conflict. Minerals extracted through violence and virtual slave labour (made possible by the conflict) are always going to be cheaper than those for which a decent wage is paid, which of course helps not only the corporations going after them, but also us consumers when we want to buy electronic goods.

The mix of public and private, of public figures and profit, of governments and corporations in this mess is all so obvious. Ever since the UN came out with its first report in 2002 on the exploitation of natural resources (linked to the conflict) in the DRC, national governments all over the world have been falling over themselves to protect their ‘home’ corporations that had been named and shamed. And countries like the USA and France have hardly been cooperative with further attempts by UN investigations to get to the bottom of the link between natural resources and the conflict, as this example shows.

Here’s an interesting comment by the spokesperson for Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on the whole mining contract vs. debt relief issue: “We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure Canadian investment in the DRC is protected, while empowering those within the country as they work towards peace and sustainable economic development”. It’s a wonder the spokesperson could put two such contradictory objectives together in the same sentence and keep a straight face.

It all seems to be just another sad, sorry and sordid page in a tale of conflict, plunder and profit, with everyone (governments, corporations and individuals) trying to get their fingers in the pot and come away with the riches. This is another case of, both figuratively and literally, riches covered in dirt and in blood.

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