Supplement to Chapter Three
Five centuries ago, it all began: a one-way transfer of human beings and natural resource wealth of epic proportions. Over the next few hundred years, millions of Congolese were raided and stolen from their homes in the Congo River basin, packed to the brim in human-trafficking shipping vessels, and sent to work the plantations and farms of the British, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies in the New World.
He enthusiastically embraced many of Portugal’s offerings, including Christianity, clothing, protocol, agriculture, education, and noble titles like duke, count, and marquis. Despite this deep engagement with the Portuguese, King Afonso I feared the rapid intensification of European slave raiding in his kingdom.
This was a new and unprecedented form of slavery that had been introduced by the Europeans. Slave raiders prioritized those between ages eighteen and thirty-five, believing that productivity was highest during that period. The slavers removed two men for every one woman, as the men were assigned to work the New World plantations. As a result of the crushing demographic losses, women assumed a more stabilizing role in Kongo.
The transformation of the Kongolese economy was profound, transitioning rapidly into a commercial economy rooted in chattel slavery, exporting thousands of abductees a year, with unchecked greed as the gasoline.
Even religion was manipulated to service the colonists’ human-trafficking efforts. For example, British explorer John Hanning Speke drew upon theories rooted in biblical passages that concluded that the “Hamitic races of Africa”–whose lineage is traced from Noah’s son Ham, whom Noah condemned to a life of slavery–“placed the continent’s Negroid races firmly where they belonged: on the bottom of the racial hierarchy, incapable of advanced civilization, and open game for slavery.”
Didier Gondola summarizes: “To some, the Congo Basin remained the land of ivory and rubber, the supplier of countless raw materials that were badly needed in European factories. To others, it came to epitomize the ‘dark continent.’ From this latter perspective, Congo was a place in need of the light of civilization, a faceless and unknown swath of land waiting to be mapped out, explored, and conquered.”
The competition between European states for colonies in Africa was driven by an insatiable thirst for the ingredients for Europe’s industrial expansion, mirroring the earlier quest for enslaved human beings to provide the plantation labor for agricultural expansion in the New World. Diamonds and gold were discovered in large quantities in Africa in the latter half of the 1800s, further fueling the colonial push. Missionaries helped feed the desire to colonize Africa as well, with millions of souls to convert.
Leopold had three advantages in facilitating his takeover of Congo: superior weaponry, culminating in the machine gun; medical knowledge; and the steamboat, to facilitate quick travel into the colony’s interior. He gave huge concessions to a group of companies that helped him exploit the raw materials as efficiently, quickly, and brutally as possible.
Meanwhile, Leopold was continuing his quest to divert people’s attention away from his commercial motives by condemning the slave trade and supporting missionary activity in his territory. He claimed his river transport hubs were being constructed to help anti-slavery efforts. Leopold used Lord Stanley’s endorsements of his aims to legitimize his activities in Congo.
Millions of Congolese perished as a direct result of the draconian Belgian forced labor system. We delve into estimates of death tolls later in the book, but the rubber terror inspired the first global human rights movement of the twentieth century to spring into action in response. This forced King Leopold to sell his personal Congolese fiefdom to the Belgian government, which resulted in Congo becoming a formal colony. There were some reforms, but by and large the forced labor system remained. By 1920, though, the labor force had shrunk so dramatically because of the spiraling death tolls that the Belgians finally had no choice but to institute more meaningful reforms.
Lord Stanley and his “Dark Continent”
Lord Henry Morton Stanley is famous in popular lore for his search for the explorer David Livingstone. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” was his famous self-reported line upon finding Livingstone deep in Congo. He is also popularly known for his role in searching for the source of the Nile and for his three-year trek across Africa from east to west, ending up at the mouth of the Congo River. As we now know, he was also violently colonizing Congo on behalf of the king.
When Stanley first crossed Congo between 1874 and 1877, he traveled with Tippo Tip from Zanzibar, one of the largest slave traffickers at the time and considered one of the most powerful men in Congo. In addition to exploring, the traveling party extracted slaves and ivory. In an 1878 book, Stanley coined the term “Dark Continent” and spoke of Africans as “the savage [who] only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.”
Stanley’s methodology for exploring was often marked by extreme violence. Adam Hochschild wrote about Stanley, “He never bothered to count the dead that the expedition left behind it.” His methods were later exposed, and explorer Richard Burton wrote that Stanley “shoots negroes as if they were monkeys.” His efforts to explore the Congo River left a huge death toll. Hochschild again: “Stanley would not allow porters ill with smallpox to stay behind and convalesce, or even to walk off into the forest to die; he made them carry their loads until they dropped.” But when he emerged from his cross-continental exploration, he was feted as a hero back in Europe and America.
Stanley had followed the Congo River for fifteen hundred miles, which wasn’t even its full length. This caught the attention of King Leopold, who saw the river as the transportation network that could facilitate his colonial commercial ambitions. Because of centuries of European slave raiding, the Kongo Kingdom and other kingdoms around it were greatly diminished. Opposition was dispersed and uncoordinated.
King Leopold soon hired Lord Stanley, but not for the publicly stated reason of exploration. Rather, the secret objective would be to help Leopold create and take possession of a new colony in the heart of Africa. Leopold wanted Stanley to establish a network of trading stations along the Congo River and a main station at the mouth of the river. Stanley provided further public diversion from Leopold’s true aims, because the former had written voluminously about the devastating Arab slave trade, and Leopold was selling his vision for Congo as a bulwark against the spread of slavery. Leopold also wanted Stanley to purchase every bit of ivory he could find along the Congo River. Stanley created a small army for his expeditions in Congo, armed with a thousand rifles, a cannon, and machine guns.
Stanley was Leopold’s kind of man, in the sense that the ends justified any means. Stanley once said, “The best punishment is that of irons because without wounding, disfiguring, or torturing the body, it inflicts shame and discomfort.” Whenever he was worried about the possibility of an ambush, a colleague remembered, “Stanley gave the order to burn all the villages round.”
Stanley was thunderously successful. He returned to Europe and turned over to King Leopold approximately four hundred treaties with various Congolese chiefs, some secured with coats, clothes, and “a couple bottles of gin.” In one treaty, for “one piece of cloth per month” from the Belgians, the chiefs gave up “all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories” and agreed “to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which [the Belgian authorities] shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories.…All roads and waterways running through the country, the right of collecting tolls on the same and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the [Belgians].”
Hochschild points out, “The conquerors of Africa, like those of the American West, were finding alcohol as effective as the machine gun.…It was an even worse trade than the Indians made for Manhattan.”
King Leopold named the modern-day city of Kisangani “Stanleyville” in honor of Lord Stanley and established it as the colony’s commercial capital. Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness was stationed in the jungle near Stanleyville. After Leopold sold Congo to Belgium, Stanleyville became a destination for European tourists, with golf courses and speedboat racing down the Congo River.
He went further and preemptively jailed all male German nationals in the colony old enough to serve in the military. However, there were significant segments of the colonial elite in Congo that supported Germany, including the Catholic Church’s leadership and key members of the business community. There were also acts of anti-Semitism in the colony, in particular the marking of Jewish shops with swastikas and slurs.
In October 1941, two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project to research the feasibility of making an atomic bomb, and a few months later approved an ultra-secret plan to build the bomb. At its height, the Manhattan Project employed 125,000 people.
Once again, the Congolese paid the price for the benefit of others, in this case the millions of people around the world whose lives were saved by the defeat of Hitler’s totalitarianism.
In the early 1990s, De Beers bought a stone from a mine near Mbuji-Mayi in Congo that later became the centerpiece of De Beers’ “Diamonds for the Millennium” promotional campaign. They called it the De Beers Millennium Star. As De Beers describes it, “Imagine a diamond so flawless and so great in size that the world’s diamond experts cannot put a price on it. The De Beers Millennium Star.…It took over three years for their diamond cutters to shape the stone with lasers. What emerged was the world’s only internally and externally flawless, 203-carat, pear-shaped diamond.…De Beers created the [Millennium] collection as a way to symbolize the world’s hopes and dreams for the future.”
This would have to qualify as one of the ironic statements for the ages, considering where the diamond came from and how little the people of Congo benefited from its discovery or from the larger diamond business.
Diamonds are inordinately useful and profitable in times of war or general instability, explains Congo analyst Christian Dietrich. “Unlike copper, cobalt, and oil that must be mined on an industrial scale, requiring substantial investment and stability at the mine site, alluvial diamonds can be mined in war zones with little or no technology. They can be mined in militarily unstable terrain that regularly changes hands between belligerents.…Diamonds are one of the most easily obtained, most easily transported forms of hard currency, for state and non-state actors alike.”
Rwanda and Uganda fought over Congo’s diamond trade, observed historian David Van Reybrouck, “the way a jackal and hyena might tug at the same carcass.”
Each of the minerals also has other uses–all three have military uses, tin is used in food cans, and tungsten is mainly used in cutting tools and industrial processes–but electronics is the overall main end use for the three minerals.
Eastern Congo has suffered decades-long armed conflict funded in large part by the illicit mining, trading, and sale of valuable minerals, particularly the 3Ts and gold. Decades of violence, weak rule of law, and the hijacking of state structures by powerful elites prevented the emergence of transparent, legal mining sectors in Congo and the surrounding Great Lakes region.
In several mineral-rich areas of the Kivus, people recalled a revolving door of armed groups and the fear and violence associated with their control. As Jacques, a former militia commander in Nyangezi told the Enough Project’s Sasha Lezhnev, “When the FDLR come to a mine, the first thing they do is get the girls and abuse them. Then they force many people to work and kill those who don’t want to work.” A food trader in tantalum-rich Rubaya named Ayuby Andrea told Holly and Fidel about the violence he and his family faced in the mid-2000s. “The armed groups would pillage; they’d grab our belongings and flee into the forest. We fled to the camps from Masisi. Back in 2007, I stayed in the camps for three years,” he recalled. “It was pretty bad–we slept like beasts, we hardly ate. Fear was permanent. And killings became normal.” As a leading Congolese minerals expert told Sasha, “In the FDLR mines in Burinyi [South Kivu], the local population is there, but they are like slaves.” Miners, traders, and civil society leaders Enough spoke to in Rubaya, Walikale, and several other mining areas of eastern Congo all told stories of violence, including fighting and abuses by many different armed groups, in particular the Congolese army.
Artisanal miners in Congo work by hand with pickaxes and shovels, and largely illegally, due to an overregulated, corrupt system put in place by government officials and army commanders who take sizable cuts from the trade. Over the past five years, multiple United Nations reports have cited artisanal gold as providing the most significant and continual financial benefit to Congo-based armed groups and organized criminal networks, especially elements of the Congolese army, through their exaction of illegal taxes along the supply chain.
Other armed groups, including the Rwandan FDLR militia, Congolese army officers, and rebel factions, have also been widely involved in gold mining, taxation, and smuggling. Gold mines with child miners as young as eight years old operate across the region, and armed groups continue to fight over mines and trading routes.
Staff members of the Enough Project have heard a consistent refrain in multiple interactions with eastern Congo—based gold cooperatives, traders, and larger-scale exporters: the current tax burden in Congo makes it impossible to export gold officially and legally without operating at a loss.
Gold is easily smuggled, and it is the ultimate fungible commodity. If taxes aren’t harmonized with neighboring countries and consequences for gold traffickers are not forthcoming, the vast majority of the gold will continue to flow out along existing illegal supply chains to unscrupulous buyers–inevitably resulting in illegal financial flows to and from the country, as well as increased money laundering–at the expense of the Congo’s government treasuries and security in eastern Congo.
Congo’s estimated gold production is between ten and fifteen tons annually, which yields at least $400 million a year, most of which is currently smuggled out of the country. Given the proliferation of armed groups, predatory and abusive elements in the Congolese army, and organized criminal networks, all of which are engaged in the illegal taxation and extortion of gold (whether at the mine site or further along the supply chain), the illegal financial flows resulting from undeclared gold are a significant factor contributing to insecurity in eastern Congo, both enabling and motivating the continued activities of these agents of instability. Moreover, these illegal financial flows are invisible and do nothing to improve Congo’s balance of payments. They represent a loss to the country’s treasury while also enabling money laundering and broader tax evasion.
Tensions related to international interests, conservation, and economic potential have affected Virunga since its establishment. During Belgium’s colonial rule, the land was declared a national park by King Albert I in 1925. It was dubbed Parc Albert, then renamed Virunga in 1969, after the volcanoes that tower over the park. Community leader Laurent Kamundu, who lives on the southwestern side of Virunga, told Holly Dranginis and Fidel that over the course of generations, his family came to value conservation. “We grew up here,” he said. “We wanted to protect this space.”
More recently, the southwestern part of Virunga became entangled in a similar snare of rebel control, this time with the complicity of the Congolese government. The rebel group involved, the remnants of the Rwandan militias that committed the 1994 genocide, maintains several strongholds and periodically attacks or threatens to attack villages just outside the park’s borders. According to a United Nations official interviewed by Holly and Fidel on a field visit to the park, a diverse set of ethnic and national groups all converge here and experience chronic tensions. “If something happens,” the UN official told Holly and Fidel, “it’s because someone’s economic interests are affected.”
Nevertheless, the Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as Sudanese and South Sudanese poachers, pose a real risk to the lives of the Garamba National Park rangers, who are on the front lines of what they refer to as “an open war.” Despite the rangers’ valiant efforts, Garamba’s elephant population is declining rapidly. The rangers need continuing support, as their activities protect not only elephants but also civilians who live in the park’s vicinity. The rangers have already proven effective in reducing the number of elephants killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army as well as deterring some of their attacks against civilians in northeastern Congo.
“These documents show that despite SOCO’s repeated denials, the company has paid tens of thousands of dollars to an army officer accused of bribing and intimidating those trying to stop oil exploration in one of Africa’s natural treasures,” said Nathaniel Dyer of Global Witness. And “These payments may be only the tip of the iceberg.”
In Virunga National Park in 2007, seven mountain gorillas were killed within a period of two months in a series of assassinations. Several media reports highlighted heavy rebel violence threatening the park. In 2008 prosecutors charged five individuals with related crimes; they were all subordinates of Virunga’s then-park director, Honoré Mashagiro.
Several accounts of the events connect the gorilla murders with Virunga’s illegal charcoal trade. A source who helped investigate the case told Holly Dranginis and Fidel that the murders were a symbolic threat, meant to discourage rangers and conservationists from disrupting charcoal trafficking networks in the park. A veteran Virunga ranger found the bodies of four of the gorillas, and commented, “Nothing like this has ever happened before.” Many were shocked. Lawyers amassed a thick dossier of evidence, including witness statements, a photo of an army truck loaded with charcoal, and copies of logbooks listing individuals allowed into the park to buy, produce, and trade charcoal in exchange for illegal taxes. Although Mashagiro was never charged, 157 witnesses gave statements against him according to the dossier, and he was named in the verdict as the defendants’ supervisor.
Fidel and Holly interviewed two eastern Congolese individuals who recalled the crimes and the case. Both work in the field of conservation. Both said independently that Mashagiro was never prosecuted but was eventually dismissed from his post at the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), and they alleged he was heavily involved in Virunga charcoal trafficking prior to that dismissal. In a 2008 National Geographic report, Mashagiro denied allegations that he was involved in the gorilla murders or the illegal charcoal trade.
Honoré Mashagiro never faced trial for any crimes, although he was dismissed from his job. His colleague Karonkano Baseka was prosecuted with the four others and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of $5,000. Charcoal associated with that case was seized and destroyed by court order.
Lawyers and activists interviewed by Holly and Fidel in Congo said the case is emblematic of enduring impunity for environmental crimes, the intertwined nature of charcoal trading and violence, and the fog of war. When Holly and Fidel asked if there was attention on the case as the court trial unfolded, Congolese environmental activist Dominique Bikaba put things in perspective. “Really, who would remember Mashagiro’s trial?” He listed high-level rebel commanders: “Nkunda, Ntaganda…you were running for your life. No one was paying attention to a case about gorilla murders.” But years later, Bikaba and others say justice and transparency related to the case are still crucial. A Congolese lawyer close to the case told Fidel and Holly, “The truth about this case should be told.”
Ndobo, the local name for darker and denser charcoal made from old-growth trees in the national parks, burns longer than “common charcoal” made from younger, non-native trees like eucalyptus. A 110-pound bag of ndobo sells for around $30, almost double the price of eucalyptus-sourced charcoal.
These activities illustrate Congo’s broader violent kleptocratic regime, involving the state’s manipulation of proxy groups, valuable natural resources, force, and state authority in the service of the accrual of personal wealth through parallel state systems. Civilians are also a critical component of the illegal charcoal trade, with the FDLR recruiting local people by force or through economic pressure to help produce, guard, transport, and sell charcoal from Virunga.
Charcoal trafficking is part of the FDLR’s broader network of criminal activity, which includes kidnapping, minerals smuggling, and elephant poaching. While much more is needed to curb the group’s sources of conflict financing, a number of policy responses–especially aimed at mining and poaching–are in motion. Meanwhile, the charcoal trade goes virtually unnoticed and largely uninhibited by law enforcement or policy interventions.