How to finance your rebellion: forget 'blood diamonds', blood charcoal is the new thing

Also: Are you an enterprising young woman looking for your big break? Marry a Congolese soldier.

IT"S only a few weeks left to the January 2, 2015 deadline imposed by the UN Security Council and regional African governments for the DR Congo-based rebel group FDLR to demobilise or face military action, but confidence isn’t high that the militia will comply with the order.

In the past, the group has simply made promises to lay down arms, but used the time away from the pressure to regroup militarily and reorganise politically and financially, a new report by the rights organisation the Enough Project says.

The FDLR and its various offshoots have been roaming the jungles of eastern DRC, particularly North and South Kivu provinces, for twenty years now, receiving material support and intelligence from the Congolese national army (FARDC).

Rich army wives

One leaked document from Monusco, the UN mission in the DRC, claimed that FDLR was making $71 million annually by collaborating in business with the wives of Congolese army officials. The army provides safe passage for goods - including timber, cannabis, illegal fishing, poaching and gold - which have been bought by the wives of the Congolese officers from FDLR contacts.

“The officers’ wives are the ‘négociants’ (traders) who buy the goods; their husbands facilitate the transport,” the Monusco document stated.

Considered the epicentre of the various rebel groups that proliferate in eastern Congo, several of the FDLR’s leaders were involved in perpetrating the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and have committed repeated massacres against civilians in Congo. The group is the “driver of instability” and the “raison d’etre for several active armed Congolese groups”, says Enough.

The Enough Project outlines a seven-point plan to defeat the FDLR, including regional diplomacy, prosecuting the top leaders by the International Criminal Court (ICC), punishing officials of the Congolese army who collaborate with rebels, and encouraging defections of lower-ranking FDLR combatants.

Rwandan refugee camps in the eastern Congo, which provide a prolific recruitment base for the rebels, should also come under UNHCR protection and oversight, the activists say. Despite being international refugees, the majority of people in the camps are treated as internally displaced people and have no pending cases with the UNHCR. 

This “double standard has led to many of the refugees to feel abandoned”, the report says, so they turn to rebels for support. The FDLR controls the security and administration of IDP camps in several areas.

But it’s not going to be a walk in the park (or forest). For one, FDLR has all the classic factors working in its favour to sustain a rebellion over the long term, to the point where resolution isn’t actually an attractive option anymore – money, recruits, and rough terrain to hide in.

For a long time, conflict minerals have rightly been singled out as a key driver of conflict in the region, and in 2012, the Dodd-Frank law compelled US and international companies conduct traceability audits to ensure the minerals they were not financing rebel groups.

Other conflict minerals

Although diamonds have got all the attention – the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, thrust the issue into public consciousness – conflict minerals primarily comprise gold ore, cassiterite (from which we get tin), wolframite (tungsten), coltan (tantalum). 

The latter three are important components in the manufacture of many consumer electronics, such as mobile phones, laptops and MP3 players.

Even though the tough regulations on conflict minerals are supposed to only stem illegal exports, the business environment in the DRC makes it very difficult to comply with the law, even if you wanted to. Comparing the country’s ease of doing business with next-door Uganda shows just how harrowing it can be.

The clamp-down on diamonds and the “electronics” minerals means gold is now the primary mineral being illegally smuggled out of the Congo, and financing groups like FDLR and its offshoots.

Gold is attractive because it is less traceable than diamonds, and there is no jewellery industry standard for verifying the origin of gold as there are for diamonds.

The market for gold is also five times larger than that of diamonds, and (happily for the rebels) much more geographically diversified. Diamond cutting and processing is concentrated in just a few cities – Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and New York are the leading ones – but gold outlays are done at both the industrial and artisanal level all over the Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Enter charcoal

International sanctions and similarly tight restrictions on gold could deprive rebels of a key source of revenue, but here’s where FDLR has its final trump card – charcoal smuggling.

Charcoal is a favourite income-generator of rebel groups and militia all around Africa, and unlike precious minerals that gain value in the global market (and so can come under international scrutiny and sanction), charcoal, low-value but huge volume, is far from the reach of international busybodies – UN sanctions have no jurisdiction over a country’s domestic trade.

Biomass fuels, including firewood and charcoal, are the primary source of cooking fuel for 730 million Africans – more than three in four. And even in urban areas and among higher income earners, transition to modern fuels such as LPG, biogas or electricity, is not straightforward, says this report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) on energy in Africa, as people tend to use their extra income for better food or education, and keep their fuel costs down.

The trade was bringing in for al-Shabab in Somalia $500,000 every month at the height of their control of the port of Kismayo, although now the port is under the control of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). Most of the charcoal exports were destined for Gulf Arab nations, and a significant chunk for internal trade within Somalia as well.

For the FDLR, trade in charcoal is bringing in $30 million a year in revenue. The fuel comes from the cutting down of trees in Virunga National Park, and profits are shared between the FDLR, the Congolese national army, and other allied rebel militias.

The timber harvesting is done with systematic and organisational efficiency, with the rebels apparently sub-dividing the Virunga forest into tracts of about 5km, which would be under the control of three or four combatants. When they are not doing the harvesting themselves, the rebels tax loggers, charcoal burners and sellers anything between $5 and $25 each.

Though charcoal is more energy-dense than wood, it is still a hugely inefficient and environmentally destructive fuel – it takes 100kg of wood to give 25kg of charcoal; with poorer techniques, however, yields often do not exceed 15-20 kg. The wet climate of the eastern Congo doesn’t help, when burning green wood, part of the energy to dry the wood is provided by the load itself, reducing yields to under 15%.

But it is incredibly lucrative too – particularly when the raw material is “free”, like in the FDLR’s case. According to the Monusco document, an estimated 92% of charcoal used in North Kivu comes from the Virunga National Park supplied by the FDLR. 

About 1,200 bags of charcoal are produced every day by the rebels and sold in the towns of Kikuku, Masisi, Sake, Rutshuru and Goma, whose gross selling price could be around $18,000 a day or higher.

And projections show that the demand for charcoal is only likely to grow in the future. In 2012, central Africa as a whole was consuming 75 million tonnes of fuelwood a year; by 2010, this will nearly double to 142 million tonnes, even as the rest of Africa reduces its relative share of fuelwood in its energy consumption mix.

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