“Congo’s natural resources are not cursed”

By Mattias Sköld and Sarah Molaiepour

Interview with Ann Laudati, Assistant Professor of Human Geography at Utah State University.

The struggle to control the country’s vast mineral resources is often described as the force behind the massive human rights violations in the DR Congo. Ann Laudati, however, argues that the violence and insecurity that continue to rage across the Eastern region of Congo, notably in mineral poor regions, testifies to the need for a broader understanding of Congo’s resource wars.   While DR Congo is often described as “a classic victim of the resource curse” Ann Laudati calls for a comprehensive exploration of the role of peripheral economies in the wider social struggle over resources and livelihood. A UN report identified a wide range of other sources of revenue for the armed groups: attacks on civilians including looting and pillaging, involvement in the drug and timber trade, charcoal production, taxation of trade routes and international arms shipments etcetera.

What underlies the simplified connection between minerals and violence?
– People don’t want to invest in so-called “messy politics”, in African countries in particular. We are not really willing to spend a lot of time, money or energy really investigating the complexities of what’s happening on the continent as a whole.

President Obama recently signed a law against imports of “conflict minerals” from Congo. You and other scholars are critical of this type of measures. Why?
– These are all band aid solutions; they don’t get at the underlying fundamental reasons for the continuous violence, for the instigation of the funds in the first place. It is for that reason certainly not going to lead to forward-thinking policies that move countries out of the situation that they are in. Obama and other governments can work towards something but I think that this is far too difficult to be dealt with through a single reform, or through focusing on a single mineral. We have to step back and ask: what kind of change do we actually want to see? The reforms don’t actually address the change that, I would hope, most people would want to see.

Talking about change, do you see a future where minerals, rather than being a curse, can benefit the people of DR Congo?
– I don’t think that Congo’s natural resources are cursed. I am not a wizard or warlord but I don’t believe that natural resources have tendencies towards being cursed or being blessed. I think that ultimately resides in the social structure into which those resources are placed. So we can talk about natural resources perhaps being cursed with bad governance and a bad political structure, the natural resources do nothing to curse Congo. People are benefitting from the natural resources now, on a very local level, but in very different creative and sometimes violent ways, but right now people are benefitting and they are engaging in production and trade of mineral resources. If we somehow think that there is some kind of organic link between armed groups, being the only benefit, than we also deny the population that is engaging in the production and trade of minerals a livelihood.         

If not minerals, what sources of revenue should we turn our attention to?
– The piece I hold within that argument is to direct attention away from minerals being the sole and most important resource that is fuelling the conflict. In fact I believe that for the most part, while it is true that minerals are providing funds to the leaders of these armed groups, if we look at the local level actors involved in the conflict, those that are actually engaged in the worst acts of violence against the communities, they are not gaining access to those mineral resources. In fact there are a lot of resources that they are not getting access to, like trade in commodities. Rather they must rely on other sources of revenue that we often don’t think of because they are seen as endemic to the violence such as pillaging and looting. Ultimately it is these local level economies that we need to increasingly turn our attention to.

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