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Minerals, Forests, and Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The forest and mineral wealth of the DRC is critical to the country and its people's political, economic, and social future. John Katunga explores the interconnections between natural resource wealth and stability.

Date & Time

Oct. 4, 2006
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


The tremendous forest and mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is critical to the country and its people's political, economic, and social future. John Katunga, a DRC national and experienced conflict mediator, explored the interconnections between natural resource wealth and stability at an event co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and Africa Program on October 4, 2006. Set in the context of the country's upcoming presidential run-off elections, Katunga provided insights into the country's historical and present struggles, and also framed the picture for the future.

"Africa is the shape of a pistol, and Congo is the trigger," said essayist Frantz Fanon. According to Katunga, this statement may be hyperbole, but it is also insightful commentary about a country that lags behind much of Africa in economic, health, and development indicators. The DRC may be the trigger of the African gun because it is a giant—roughly the size of Europe, it is endowed with unparalleled natural resources. Copper, cobalt, diamond, coltan, and gold mines flourish in the east and southern regions; while the Congo Basin contains one quarter of the world's remaining tropical forests, as well as a spectacular array of biodiversity—10,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds, and 400 species of mammals.

Yet, throughout Congo's tumultuous history, its natural assets have failed to provide stability. From the reign of King Leopold II, to the 30-year dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu, and up to the present, resources in the DRC have spurred fierce competition and conflict. A vicious cycle of resource extraction has emerged, according to Katunga: global demand for resources drives competition, promoting exploitation, degrading the environment, diminishing resources, and driving more competition. "The more the demands grow, the higher and faster the cycle grows, and the more victims we have in the DRC," he said.

Between 1990 and 2000, the country experienced severe inflation and falling production in manufacturing and agriculture. As a result, food prices spiked, the banking system collapsed, the deficit skyrocketed, and investors fled to more stable nations. Individual measures of well-being also declined—GDP per capita fell from US$224 to US$85, while human rights abuses escalated, life expectancy plummeted, and AIDS spread faster than elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural clearing, logging for fuel and construction, poaching, and the diversion of streams to search for minerals all contributed to the country's flailing economy, yet they were all evidence of a larger problem: the government's weak hold on the resource markets. For example, Katunga noted its inability to crack down on export smuggling: "Not only the minerals, but the coffee and the tea, are going to Rwanda." Rwanda, he noted, exports three times more than it produces. "The reason is Congo," he said.

According to Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa Program and the event's discussant, deep-seated mistrust is at the heart of the DRC's problems. For example, on the evening of the general election in July, supporters of the two leading candidates shot at each other. "The DRC has never had a national political system in which the elements of the political system see themselves as dependent on each other," he said. "Each part is convinced that it cannot succeed or prosper except at the expense of the other guy." Wolpe runs a leadership training program in the DRC that has been successful in bringing together feuding factions, he said, but was altogether too little, too late. The program, which only began in January 2006, could not have yet had national-scale impact. "You don't create critical mass in a country of 60 million people in only nine months," he said.

The continuation of training programs such as Wolpe's, which promote conflict resolution and capacity building, should be a priority, Katunga said: "After the [run-off presidential] election, we may slip back into violence. This is an area in which we need absolute support." The diplomatic community in Kinshasa is also concerned with lasting assistance, Wolpe said: "We have this mentality that after an election, the crisis is over; but with the Congo, the election is just the beginning…The real hard work begins after the election." International assistance will be critical to successful development, Katunga said: "We need support of all kinds...not just money." Mere financial assistance will divide—not unite—the Congolese, he explained: "Force them to build a tower together and you will make them brothers and sisters. But if you want to tear them apart, toss them some coins."

Katunga outlined several tracks for international assistance. International bodies like the United Nations, the African Union, and the European Union should help implement national-level reforms of the mineral and forestry sectors, as well as reforms of the country's judiciary. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as other international NGOs and faith-based groups, should promote capacity building at the provincial and local levels, as well as oversee programs to address anti-corruption and promote environmental sustainability. The United States, the speakers agreed, has a particular role to play in the DRC. U.S. aid—often given conditionally—is met by unqualified aid from other countries. "Resources in Congo are becoming very strategic," Katunga said, noting that China and India are both making plays for African resources. "China is coming. And they do not come the way Americans or Europeans come," he said. "Chinese come in respectful ways; they come physically; they go to villages; they settle."

Congo's fate could swing the right or wrong direction. For a country with such a turbulent past, continued civil war and secessionist movements might seem inevitable, but both speakers noted that beneath the competition and infighting, the Congolese desire a unified state. "The sense of national identity is striking given the contemporary history of Congo," said Wolpe. Echoing the point, Katunga stressed a unified Congolese attitude: "The microstate is not what we are looking for. We, the Congolese, have been failed by our leadership. But the people in the communities went peacefully to vote. We have deep aspirations. We need leadership to meet the aspiration of the people."

Drafted by Alison Williams.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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