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July 19, 2009

Catholics can help stop plundering

By Michelle Martin


Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”) calls on the world’s economic actors to recognize that “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity” and that wealthier nations must look to help the poor.

Paul Miller, the Africa advisor for Catholic Relief Services, has at least one suggestion on how to do that.

Catholics should throw their support behind a Senate bill aimed at helping people in conflict- ridden eastern Congo by stopping the ongoing plunder of the region by militias and armies from surrounding areas.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Miller said during a recent visit to Chicago, has 65 percent of the world’s reserves of a mineral called columbite-tantalite (known as coltan), which is used in cell phones and other small electronic devices.

While most of it is in eastern Congo, the majority of coltan used today is exported from surrounding countries, smuggled out of Congo by the warring factions that have terrorized the people who live there for years.

The fighting continues in that region despite the formal end of the Congolese civil war, which raged from 1998 to 2003.

As Pope Benedict writes in “Caritas in Veritate,” “The stockpiling of natural resources, which in many cases are found in the poor countries themselves, gives rise to exploitation and frequent conflicts between and within nations. These conflicts are often fought on the soil of those same countries, with a heavy toll of death, destruction and further decay. The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources.”

So CRS, the official overseas development agency, helps alleviate their suffering in concrete ways, such as offering food aid, but it also is educating U.S. Catholics about the issue and advocating that the United States take action.

Last year, when a group of Congolese bishops visited the United States, Miller accompanied them on visits to Capitol Hill, where they told lawmakers that each cell phone has “a drop of Congolese blood in it.”

Now CRS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are asking Catholics behind the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009, which is sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

The bill directs the U.S. Department of State to investigate the natural resource financing of illegal armed groups, provide guidance to businesses on tracking their supply chains, design a strategy to assist regional governments to improve mineral trade transparency, assist the Democratic Republic of Congo to improve mineral management and export, and impose punitive measures for commercial activities that support illegal armed groups.

If passed, the bill also would require companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange to disclose in annual Securities and Exchange Commission reports the country of origin of coltan, tin and tungsten, and if the country of origin is the DRC or a bordering country, also to disclose the mine of origin; and promotes more humanitarian and development assistance for affected communities in the DRC.