The scientists who made the packets of our conversations jump from tower to tower, the engineers that made our phones smaller and smarter, the designers that made our phones fit snugly into our lives, together they changed everything. The idea that people once had to call a telephone wired to a building in the hope of reaching a person who might be there seems quaint, clunky, and a little absurd to our children.
All the power of modern technology transformed a world of copper wires into a world where billions of conversations fill the air. It was brilliant, but it had a cost. The ideas might have come from Silicon Valley, but to make our phones we needed other minerals, like tin and coltan. And while silicon is found everywhere, tin and coltan are concentrated in only a few parts of the world.
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The frictionless genius of our creative class, which we see every day in our lives and in advertising, leads us to support environmental destruction and human enslavement that we never see. We want our clever phones, the market needs resources to make them, and getting those resources creates and feeds conflict. It turns out that the foundations of our ingenious new economy rest on the forceful extraction of minerals in places where laws do not work and criminals control everything.
Places like Walikale. Rubber and ivory worth millions were arriving in Europe, but the ships going back carried little besides weapons [and] manacles. The threat looming over Walikale, the cause of all the lawlessness, is the echo of a much larger conflict. The two provinces in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo are like the elbow pipe under your sink, the place where ugly stuff sticks and festers. After the genocide in next-door Rwanda, first many of the Tutsi refugees, and then many of the perpetrators, Hutu militias and soldiers, as well as an even larger number of Hutu civilians, fled across the weakly policed border and settled in the Eastern Congo.
The militia men took over villages and stole land, goods, food, and even people at gunpoint. Nineteen years later they are still there, living like parasitic plants, their roots driven deeply into the region. Chaos reigns, government control has collapsed, and ten different armed groups fight over minerals, gold, and diamonds—and the slaves to mine them.
The big dog is a Hutu group called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda FDLR , a force that is not democratic and has never tried to liberate anyone or anything. The one thing that all these warring groups have in common is that they make slaves of the local people. These eastern provinces are called North Kivu and South Kivu, and they hold some of the wildest, most deeply beautiful and seriously dangerous terrain on the planet. The mixture of mountains, river valleys, great lakes, and volcanoes is spectacular, though the endemic parasites and diseases, including typhoid and plague, are a constant threat.
The nature reserves and national parks in the Kivus are some of the last places to find a number of threatened animal species, like the great gorillas. Two kinds of elephants roam the forests, and hippos work the riverbanks. High in their treetop nests, this is the only place in the world to find our closest relative, the bonobo chimpanzee. But when the rebel groups pushed into these protected forests and habitats, deforestation and illegal poaching followed, and the bonobo population fell by 95 percent.
At the very beginning of the twentieth century there was an unquenchable demand in America and Europe for an amazing new technology—air-filled rubber tires. The Age of the Railroad was ending. Henry Ford was making cars by the million, bicycles were pouring out of factories, freight was moving in gasoline-powered trucks, and they all ran on rubber. The Congo had more natural rubber than anywhere else. To meet this demand King Leopold II of Belgium, in one of the greatest scams in history, tricked local tribes into signing away their lands and lives in bogus treaties that none of them could read.
The profits from the slave-driving concessions were stupendous. Wild rubber, as well as elephant ivory for piano keys and decoration, was ripped out of the forests at an incredible human cost. Experts believe that ten million people died.
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It is the great forgotten genocide of the twentieth century. The genocide, the killers, and the corrupt king were exposed by a whistle-blower, an English shipping clerk named Edmund Morel. Assigned to keep track of the goods flowing in and out of the Congo, he realized that rubber and ivory worth millions were arriving in Europe, but the ships going back carried little besides weapons, manacles, and luxury goods for the bosses.
Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out. Morel kept digging, getting the facts. By , he was working with others in a full-time campaign against slavery in the Congo that brought in celebrity supporters like Mark Twain. Via Wikimedia Commons. Armed thugs still run the place.
More fortunes are being made, more people are being brutalized, and slave-produced commodities are still feeding the demand for new technologies. But the truth is out under there in the rain forests and protected habitats suffering the onslaught of slave workers driven by rogue militias. Walikale used to be a sleepy little village, but now it is crowded with refugees from the countryside. War has swept through many times in the last fifteen years, and everywhere is ruin.
Rusty half-tracks and jeeps are shot up and crushed along the road. Along the dirt track, three boys, homemade drumsticks flying, are doing their own version of STOMP on a battered and derelict Russian army truck. The walls are pocked with bullet holes, windows are smashed, and our food is cooked over an open fire. In the old colonial office, the atmosphere is genial but chilly. I swallow hard and give in. He knows this war-torn jungle like we never will. To visit any town or village in Eastern Congo is to walk on rubble. Children play, people do their best to get by, but destruction is everywhere.
And yet, there is a paradoxical air of paradise. The land is a high plateau, so even though the region sits almost on the equator, the air is cool and fresh, the sunlight crisp. Daytime temperatures are surprisingly comfortable all year round. The rich volcanic soil is dark, crumbly, and fertile. Most nights there is short, intense rainfall that refreshes the lush greenery and riot of flowers. The low mountains are covered to their peaks with forests. Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes, holds fish, and about a thousand feet below the surface is a cache of 72 billion cubic yards of natural gas ready to fuel a new economy.
Mountains, flowers, sun, water, fresh fish, fresh vegetables, fruit, and dark rich soil—this place has it all. Nature is willing, but the people are broken. War has shattered minds and bodies and any semblance or expectation of order; life has become a scramble for survival in a population divided between those with guns and those without. This chaos is the perfect breeding ground for slavery. When valuable minerals are stirred into the mix, the odds of a slavery outbreak are even higher. The same cycle that fueled the slavery and genocide of continues to revolve today, not just in Congo but around the world.
In the rich half of the world step one arrives with great advertising fanfare. Consumer demand drives production that, in turn, requires raw materials.
These materials might be foodstuffs or timber, steel or granite, or one of a hundred minerals from glittering gold and diamonds to muddy pebbles of coltan and tin. In a context of poverty and corruption the scramble for resource control is immediate and deadly.
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Kleptocratic governments swell with new riches that are used to buy the weapons that will keep them in power. But for every bloated dictator there are ten lean and hungry outsiders who also know how to use guns, and they lust for the money flowing down the product chain. Soon, civil war is a chronic condition, the infrastructure of small businesses, schools, and hospitals collapses, the unarmed population is terrorized and enslaved, and the criminal vultures settle down to a long and bloody feed. Step three arrives as the pecking order stabilizes and gangs begin to focus less on fighting each other and more on increasing their profits.
A little chaos is good for criminal business, but too much is disruptive, even for warlords. Black markets also need some stability, and with territories carved up and guns pointing at workers instead of other armed gangs, the lean and hungry men begin to grow fat themselves. Step four builds on this new stability that serves only the criminals.
Secure in their power, the thugs ramp up production, finding new sources of raw materials and new pools of labor to exploit.
Thus the curse has reached its full power. In that lawless, impoverished, unstable, remote region, slavery and environmental destruction flourish. A good-sized city whose main industry is foreign aid has a strange feel. A few days before flying to Walikale we arrived at the border city of Goma, a good place to start if you want to understand what is happening in Eastern Congo. It is also the home of hundreds of international non-governmental organizations that stepped in when the government collapsed.
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Today these organizations fill the buildings with their offices and the streets with their distinctive four-wheel-drive SUVs. The result is a town like no other. Billboards and posters line the streets, advertising not consumer goods, but how to prevent infectious diseases and domestic violence. And looming over the city is the volcano. Called Nyiragongo, it has erupted some twenty-four times in the past one hundred and thirty years. Large eruptions occurred in , , and , culminating in a devastating explosion in That year a fissure eight miles wide opened on the side of the mountain and lava boiled out toward Goma.
Fortunately, early evacuation kept the death toll to Today the hardened lava is everywhere and streets end abruptly at a low wall of rippled black rock, a frozen torrent. Life persists on top of the hardened lava while Nyiragongo continues to churn and smoke. Mount Nyiragongo. What is happening in the Eastern Congo today is the reverberation of the political and ethnic explosion that occurred in Rwanda in and left all of East Africa reeling. In April of that year, the world watched in horror as genocide swept through Rwanda.
Nearly a million people were murdered and another two million fled the country.
Large numbers of refugees, mostly ethnic Tutsis who were the target of the genocide, escaped across the border into Congo. Most of these refugees ended up in vast and ragged camps built on the lava fields around the city. When cholera hit two months later, killing fifty thousand people in just a few weeks, the rock was too hard to dig graves, and bodies piled up along the roadsides. Just a hundred days later, in July , the genocidal regime in Rwanda was overthrown.
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