On 29 November 2009, the U.S. television news show 60 Minutes aired a segment called “Congo Gold”. This segment purported to expose the link between gold and war in Congo, but there were three major problems with the 60 Minutes story that merit attention and discussion.
1. Although the 60 Minutes story focuses on current conflict in South Kivu, most of the footage used in the story is of a gold mine in the relatively peaceful Ituri District, a few hundred miles to the north. The story starts with dramatic footage of what the correspondent, Scott Pelley, describes simply as a “gold mine in central Africa.” This large, terraced pit mine is in fact the Chudja mine, located approximately thirty miles northwest of Bunia, the capital of the Ituri District. There was a bloody war in Ituri from 1999 until 2007, but the good news is that large parts of Ituri—including the rich gold fields in the Chudja area—are at peace. There are still significant problems around Chudja, related mainly to the Congolese army and police, but there is no active conflict. Yet 60 Minutes repeatedly shows Chudja when talking about ongoing conflict in Congo, thus creating a false impression about the extent of the connection between gold and current war. Which leads to the second problem.
2. The second problem could be summarized as “The Enough Project”, but more specifically, the problem is the statements made by John Prendergast, Enough’s director. In the segment, Prendergast states: “If you do a conflict analysis you will find that when there are spikes in violence, it has something to do with contestation over the mineral resources, gold and the rest of them.” Prendergast goes on to say that conflict will continue “until we break that cycle and address the root issue here, which is the gold and the other conflict minerals.” Academics and policymakers who have taken more than a passing glance at the Congo wars will scoff at Prendergast’s deeply flawed and simplistic “conflict analysis”, but Prendergast is not talking to people who know something—he’s talking to those who know very little or nothing, who are the target audience of Enough’s self-appointed campaign to “save Congo”. Enough is guilty of vastly understating the role of history, ethnicity, local and regional politics, and other factors in causing and sustaining war in Congo, or more accurately, war in the Kivus, since most of Congo is now in a state of quasi-peace. Prendergast should know better, and likely he does know better, but he has created a campaign that vastly oversimplifies the conflict in the Congo and ignores the fact that most gold produced in Congo is from areas at peace—not at war—which leads to the final problem with the 60 Minutes story.
3. The third problem is the suggestion that gold can or should be cut off from Congo. In his interview with Scott Rumsey from the Responsible Jewelry Council, correspondent Scott Pelley asks: “Why can’t the industry cut off the [gold] supply from Congo and strangle the civil war there?” Let’s think about that statement for a minute, which was broadcast into the homes of tens of millions of Americans. First, the wars in the Kivus are not simply about competition over gold, so cutting off Congo’s gold is not a practical solution for ending the wars. 60 Minutes and Enough have created the impression that wherever there is gold, there is conflict (and rape), but this is simply not true. Second, cutting off the gold supply from Congo would mean putting approximately 100,000 artisanal miners out of work in the gold mines around Chudja alone, plus untold tens of thousands in other parts of Congo that are not experiencing conflict. Cutting off Congo’s gold would be a social and economic disaster for areas like Ituri that are struggling to emerge from war. Third, cutting off Congo’s gold is completely impractical. Nearly all of Congo’s gold is smuggled out of the country, and short of heavily militarizing Congo’s entire border and strip-searching everyone at the airports, this suggestion is not viable. Pelley could be excused for making such a naïve statement, since it apparently comes directly out of Enough’s talking points, but his statement should be discredited because of its dangerous suggestion that cutting off Congo’s gold is worthwhile policy objective.
Some people might say that any press is good press when it comes to war in Congo, but I disagree. High profile media coverage, like that of 60 Minutes, can be a powerful tool in educating people about how they as consumers may inadvertently support war in other countries, and some recent stories have done an excellent job in this respect. But media coverage can also be a dangerous tool in promoting false notions about the root causes of conflict in a place like Congo, and in suggesting misguided policies to address those supposed root causes.