UN: Gold, timber and ivory plunder stokes Congo conflict

Billion-dollar smuggling trade propping up rebel groups in war-torn east of vast African country, reveals report

UN peacekeepers on patrol in the Congo - war has raged since 1997 (Pic: Sylvain Liechti/UN photos)

UN peacekeepers on patrol in the Congo – war has raged since 1997 (Pic: Sylvain Liechti/UN photos)

By Alex Pashley

Criminal groups are stripping up to $1.3 billion in natural resources a year from the Democratic Republic of Congo, fuelling ceaseless violence as civil war nears a third decade.

Profits from trafficked goods like gold, timber, charcoal and ivory fund at least 25 armed groups, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report published on Thursday.

“This income represents the basic subsistence cost for at least 8,000 fighters a year, and enables defeated or disarmed groups to continuously resurface and destabilise the region,” the report said.

Holding over half of Africa’s tropical forests, years of political instability have driven deforestation and devastated wildlife including endangered gorillas and rhinos.

Last year researchers said the loss of Congo’s rainforests could lead to the region warming 3C above pre industrial levels by 2050.

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At civil war since 1997, unrest has squandered the resource wealth of a country that ranks 186 out of 187 on the Human Development Index.

“Wildlife and forest crime is serious and calls for an equally serious response,” Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP executive director said. “[E]nviromental crime robs countries of revenues that could have been spent on sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.”

The UN’s 20,000-strong peacekeeping mission helped Congolese soldiers force the surrender of M-23 rebels in November 2013.

The report  called to strengthen the rule of law and boost intelligence gathering across supply routes to track illegal operations.


UN peacekeepers patrol Congo's Beni region in an APC (Pic: UN photos//Sylvain Liechti)

UN peacekeepers patrol Congo’s Beni region in an APC (Pic: UN photos//Sylvain Liechti)


Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of MONUSCO, the UN’s regional security force, said,  “These resources lost to criminal gangs and fuelling the conflict could have been used to build schools, roads, hospitals and a future for he Congolese people.”

Congo holds five world heritage sites owing to the rich biodiversity of its forests. All are on UNESCO’s ‘danger list’, however.

In the eastern DRC, loggers have cut down an estimated 61,500 hectares of forest a year since 2001, driving the felling of hardwoods and charcoal production.

The UN estimates between $58-176 million of charcoal, or 293,000 tons are produced a year.

Between 10-30% of the overall illegal trade goes to transnational organized criminal networks based outside the eastern DRC, the report, compiled by a range of experts from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and locals NGOs said.


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