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A Light at the End of the Tunnel in Congo

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This post originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not an obvious candidate to be Africa's turnaround story of the coming decade. This is a country that has been pillaged by outsiders for more than a century, cursed by its extraordinary natural resource base to unparalleled levels of death and destruction. With a seemingly intractable war in the east, one of the worst corruption-fighting records in the world, and some of the highest rates of sexual violence ever recorded, Congo does not, understandably, lend itself well to optimistic prognoses. But sometimes a situation deteriorates so badly that it catalyzes transformative responses. And things can actually change, no matter how entrenched the troubles. That opportunity for real progress is exactly what I found on my recent visit to Congo.

Congo's conflict, the world's deadliest since World War II, is not really a war -- it's a business based on violent extortion. There are numerous armed groups and commercial actors -- Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan -- that have positioned themselves for the spoils of a deliberately lawless, accountability-free, unstable, highly profitable mafia-style economy. Millions of dollars are made monthly in illegal taxation of mining operations, smuggling of minerals, and extortion rackets run by mafia bosses based primarily in Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala. The spoils are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, minerals that go into laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, and jewelry stores in the West. Armed groups use terrifying tactics such as mass rape and village burning to intimidate civilians into providing cheap labor for this elaborate extortion racket.

For decades, this illegal economy has thrived in the shadows. Atrocities committed against Congo's civilian populations are both a means of social control and retribution for the perceived support of military (and hence commercial) opponents. It's all about controlling the minerals and gaining a handsome profit. And until this logic of unaccountable, violent, illegal mineral extraction changes, all the peacekeepers and peacemakers in the world will have very little impact on the levels of violence there.

Here's where the good news begins. A light is increasingly being shone in, illuminating this ugly reality. And it might just be enough to start altering the deadly supply chain in a way that will be the key to transforming eastern Congo's torturous history.

The first sign of hope comes from consumers of these electronic and luxury goods. Shoppers are beginning to put pressure on the companies selling cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and other electronic devices, along with gold-jewelry retailers, to stop using the conflict minerals mined in eastern Congo. If consumers demand conflict-free electronics products and jewelry strongly enough, just as they do green technologies and fair trade products, big companies can place downstream pressure to clean up the supply chain for these minerals. In fact, this has already begun. Where companies six months ago shrugged off the issue as niche, they are today thinking seriously about how to tackle the problem.

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John Prendergast is Co-Founder of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.