“Congo Gold”: Three Problems with the 60 Minutes Story

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.

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9 thoughts on ““Congo Gold”: Three Problems with the 60 Minutes Story

  1. There is an interesting discussion of the issue of violence and minerals over at “Texas in Africa”: http://texasinafrica.blogspot.com/2009/12/show-me-data.html that makes many of the same points. There is simply no good evidence on which to argue that the extraction of minerals in Congo is a cause for violence against civilians, and advocating that the trade in minerals should be choked off, supposedly in the name of human rights, is dangerous nonsense.

  2. Sanctioning those who deliberately engage in trade with networks linked to armed groups may be a more sensible way of doing things. Alas the UN Security Council has not lifted a finger against a single guilty party to the conflict since at least December 2008.

  3. Thanks for the link, Alex, and thanks for the excellent thoughts on the piece, Dan.  So many of us are concerned that the oversimplification of a quite complex issue is resulting in bad policy that makes no one better off in the long run.

  4. Pingback: News About Congo

  5. Excellent, very thoughtful and very true; I could not see the 60 minutes special, but your takedown is pretty on-point about the natural resources hypothesis that seems to be in vogue these days. Its definitely true that gold and other mines are violent places (even ones in ‘peaceful’ areas like Katanga), and some gold funds the rebels as is well known, but it really is really an exaggeration to claim that it is a ’cause’ — land rights, citizen rights, people looking for political positions, etc. are where the solutions lie – as well as broader change in the state. And doesn’t most gold exported from DRC go to industrial uses anyway? I can’t imagine much ends up in the US jewelry market.

  6. i have difficulty accepting your conclusions, dan. not b/c your statements are not more or less true, but b/c they avoid the one hard truth, which is that the arms that have made the conflict so deadly are acquired by various groups whose financing comes from controlling, or acquiring, the minerals. what do you propose to end the conflict? if it is extreme to punish miners and their dependents for financing the conflict that is occurring in othe regions, it is equally extreme to say that we will not try to stop the exchange of money acquired by minerals, or timber, or whatever, for weapons.

    it seems clear to me that there are two major elements in this that outsiders can address: the flow of arms into the region, and the flow of valuable minerals out to companies who are indirectly paying militias for the weapons.

    what do you propose to stop this? as i said, if it is extreme to place a boycott on the entire region, it is equally extreme to avoid taking the necessary measures that would ultimately protect the lives of tens of millions of congolese.

  7. Ken Harrow–My statement simply points out how 60 Minutes did a poor job of describing and analyzing the war.  I also wanted to highlight how oversimplifying the conflict can lead to a false understanding of its causes and therefore flawed policy initiatives to end it.  

    One thing I think should be done is for the UNSC to sanction the Ugandan and Rwandan governments, or high officials in those governments, who are directly or indirectly enabling and profiting from the trade in minerals from eastern Congo.  That said, I also think there is a misplaced faith in the ability of “outsiders” to promote peace in Congo through DC-based lobbying. 

    Ituri had virtually the same problem set as the Kivus–land issues, gold mines, manipulation of ethnicity, foreign intervention, difficult terrain–but Ituri is largely peaceful now, thanks mainly to MONUC.  Perhaps there should be a second look at what worked in Ituri to see how it could be replicated in the Kivus.  But I will leave such an analysis to people who know that area much better than me.

  8. re: 2 – John Prendergast is certainly overlooking the role he and his former boss, Susan Rice, played under the Clinton Administration in enabling the conflict. He knows that in the Kivus coltan, tin ore, zinc have been financing the conflict from the beginning, including when their favorite thesis was ethnic strife.

    In the end, the Enough Project should be careful not to “darfurize” the conflict in the Congo.

  9. I wanted to address the statement, “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”. I completely agree with this statement and have been doing some research that has helped me understand this more in detail. In my research I have found that there are indeed many other factors contributing to the Congo’s problems. According to Emmy Godwin Irobi, who has a Ph.D. in political science and once was a child solider himself, talks about John Burton’s theory known as the human needs theory. This theory explains that instead of blaming the conflict on human aggression or on old habits, the violence may actually be due to basic human needs. The need for water, shelter, food, money is thought to be an understood minimum for everyday life. However, because Africa has never really had the appropriate development for these things, conflict ensues in order to secure these basics. Political leaders can also add to this turmoil by actually favoring certain groups and supplying them with food, money, and weaponry in order to gain partial profit from their earnings (Global Policy Forum). In the Congo, cultural rivalries also remain an effective tool of survival due to the fact that most of the African people are living in poverty still and culture is all they have. To better explain this would be the idea of social Darwinism because it plays an enormous role in why these rebel groups are doing what they are doing. Social Darwinism is the idea of survival of the fittest (Versen). In the Congo, if you are not the strongest militia then chances are you will no longer exist. This creates an environment that is always trying to out do the other which means fighting will inevitably occur. So, it does seem that “The Enough Project” barely scrapes the surface of one issue that may be causing the problem when in fact there are various factors leading to the conflict. (I tried to include hyperlinks for the research I cited, but would not work on your website. Let me know if you would like the links send to you)

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