Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy

On the new triangle trade, and the surprising connection between modern slavery and ecological disaster.

Kevin Bales | Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World | Spiegel & Grau | January 2016 | 34 minutes (9,162 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Blood and Earth, by Kevin Bales, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones.

It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.

Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can be buried only in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”

Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.

Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.

Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery.

“See the little girl playing with the hammer?” asked a local investigator. “Along with the child, the size of the hammer grows, and that’s the only progress in her life.” Slavery in granite quarries is a family affair enforced by a tricky scheme based on debt. When a poor family comes looking for work, the quarry bosses are ready to help with an “advance” on wages to help the family settle in. The rice and beans they eat, the scrap stones they use to build a hut on the side of the quarry, the hammers and crowbars they need to do their work, all of it is provided by the boss and added to the family’s debt. Just when the family feels they may have finally found some security, they are being locked into hereditary slavery. This debt bondage is illegal, but illiterate workers don’t know this, and the bosses are keen to play on their sense of obligation, not alert them to the scam that’s sucking them under.

Slavery is a great way to keep your costs down, but there’s another reason why that granite is so cheap—the quarries themselves are illegal, paying no mining permits or taxes. The protected state and national forest parks rest on top of granite deposits, and a bribe here and there means local police and forest rangers turn a blind eye. Outside the city of Bangalore, down a dirt track, and into a protected jungle area, great blocks of granite wait for export. “People have found it easy to just walk into the forest and start mining,” explained Leo Saldanha of the local Environmental Support Group. “Obviously it means the government has failed in regulating . . . and senior bureaucrats have colluded to just look the other way.”

German filmmakers researching the tombstone shortage were the first to follow the supply chain from European graveyards to quarries in India—and they were shocked by what they discovered. Expecting industrial operations, they found medieval working conditions and families in slavery. Suddenly, the care taken to remember and mark the lives of loved ones took an ugly turn. Back in Germany the filmmakers quizzed the businessmen that sold the tombstones; these men were appalled when they saw footage from the quarries. The peace and order of the graves surrounding ancient churches was suddenly marred by images of slave children shaping and polishing the stone that marked those graves.

Our view of cemetery monuments is normally restricted to what we see when we bury our loved ones or visit their graves. If we think about where the markers come from at all, we might imagine an elderly craftsman carefully chiseling a name into a polished stone. The “monuments industry” in America promotes this view. One company explains there are two key factors that affect the price of tombstones. First, they point out the “stone can come from as close as California and South Dakota or as far away as China and India,” adding that “more exotic stones will have to be shipped and taxed, which will add to the overall cost.” And, second, this company notes that granite takes thousands of years to form and it is “heavy, dense, brittle, and many times sharp, requiring great care and more than one person in its handling.” Because of this there must be “techniques and processes that require skill as well as time to make your memorial beautiful and lasting.” All of this helps us to feel good about what we’ve spent for the stone at our loved one’s grave, but the facts are different. We know that, even though it comes all the way from India, slave-produced granite is cheap. We also know that, while some polishing and skillful carving of names and dates is needed, those heavy, dense, and sharp tombstones will first be handled by children, though they will be taking “great care,” of course, since the slave master is watching.

Some of the most ancient objects we know are tombstones, dating back to the earliest moments of recorded human history. Our civilization, even today, is built of what we pull from the earth, stone and clay for bricks, salt and sand and a host of other minerals that meet so many of our needs. There’s an intimacy in the stone we use to mark the final resting place of someone we love; there’s another sort of intimacy in the less obvious but still essential minerals that let us speak with our loved ones on phones or write to them on computers.

Cellphones have become electronic umbilical cords connecting us with our children, our partners, and our parents with an immediacy and reliability hardly known before. Our lives are full of ways that we connect with other people—the food we serve and share, the rings and gifts we exchange—and we understand these objects primarily from the point at which they arrive in our lives. We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones, or imagine a local funeral director carving a loved one’s name into a tombstone. Whether we are grilling shrimp for our friends or buying T-shirts for our children we generally think of these things as beginning where we first encountered them, at the shop, at the mall, in the grocery store. But just as each of us is deeper than our surface, just as each of us has a story to tell, so do the tools and toys and food and rings and phones that tie us together. Slaves are producing many of the things we buy, and in the process they are forced to destroy our shared environment, increase global warming, and wipe out protected species.

* * *

If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but it would be the world’s third-largest producer of CO2.

It makes sense that slavery and environmental destruction would go hand in hand. In some ways they spring from the same root. Our consumer economy is driven at its most basic level by resource extraction, pulling things from the earth, an extraction that we never actually see. We pull food from the earth, of course, but we also pull our cellphones from the earth, our clothing, our computers, our flat-screen televisions, our cars—it all comes from the earth, ultimately. And pulling things from the earth can be a dirty business. To make our consumer economy hum and grow and instantly gratify, costs are driven down as low as they can go, especially at the bottom of the supply chain; this can lead to abusive conditions for workers and harm to the natural world. Taken to the extreme it means slavery and catastrophic environmental destruction. But all this normally happens far from any prying eyes. It’s a hidden world that keeps its secrets.

But there’s no secret about the engine driving this vicious cycle. It is us—the consumer culture of the rich north. Shrimp, fish, gold, diamonds, steel, beef, sugar, and the other fruits of slavery and environmental devastation flow into the stores of North America, Europe, Japan, and, increasingly, China. The profits generated when we go shopping flow back down the chain and fuel more assaults on the natural world, drive more people toward enslavement, and feed more goods into the global supply chain. Round and round it goes— our spending drives a criminal perpetual motion machine that eats people and nature like a cancer.

How closely linked are these two crimes? Well, we know environmental change is part of the engine of slavery. The sharp end of environmental change, whether slow as rising sea levels and desertification, or disastrously sudden like a hurricane or a tsunami, comes first to the poor. I’ve seen men, women, children, families, and whole communities impoverished and broken by environmental change and natural disasters. Homes and livelihoods lost, these people and communities are easily abused. Especially in countries where corruption is rife, slavers act with impunity after environmental devastation, luring and capturing the refugees, the destitute, and the dispossessed. This has happened in countries like Mali, where sand dunes drift right over villages, forcing the inhabitants to flee in desperation, seeking new livelihoods, only to find themselves enslaved. It happens in Asia every time a tidal wave slams into a coastline, pushing survivors inland, and in Brazil when forests are destroyed and the land washes away in the next tropical storm, leaving small farmers bereft and vulnerable.

Slaves lured or captured from the pool of vulnerable migrants are then forced to rip up the earth or level the forests, completing the cycle. Out of our sight, slaves numbering in the hundreds of thousands do the work that slaves have done for millennia: digging, cutting, and carrying. That cutting and digging moves like a scythe through the most protected parts of our natural world—nature reserves, protected forests, UNESCO World Heritage Sites— destroying the last refuges of protected species and, in the process, often the slave workers. And as gold or tantalum or iron or even shrimp and fish are carried away from the devastation, these commodities begin their journey across the world and into our homes and our lives.

Surprisingly, slavery is at the root of much of the natural world’s destruction. But how can the estimated 35.8 million slaves in the world really be that destructive? After all, while 35.8 million is a lot of people, it is only a tiny fraction of the world’s population, and slaves tend to work with primitive tools, saws, shovels, and picks, or their own bare hands. Here’s how: slaveholders are criminals, operating firmly outside of any law or regulation. When they mine gold they saturate thousands of acres with toxic mercury. When they cut timber, they clear-cut and burn, taking a few high-value trees and leaving behind a dead ecosystem. Laws and treaties may control law-abiding individuals, corporations, and governments, but not the criminal slaveholders who flout the gravest of laws.

When it comes to global warming, these slaveholders outpace all but the very biggest polluters. Adding together their slave-based deforestation and other CO2-producing crimes leads to a sobering conclusion. If slavery were an American state it would have the population of California and the economic output of the District of Columbia, but it would be the world’s third-largest producer of CO2, after China and the United States. It’s no wonder that we struggle and often fail to stop climate change and reduce the atmospheric carbon count. Slavery, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas producers, is hidden from us. Environmentalists are right to call for laws and treaties that will apply to the community of nations, but that is not enough. We also have to understand that slavers—who don’t adhere to those laws and treaties—are a leading cause of the natural world’s destruction. And to stop them, we don’t need more laws. We need to end slavery.

The good news is that slavery can be stopped. We know how to bust slaveholders and free slaves, we know how much it costs and where to start, and we know that freed slaves tend to be willing workers in the rebuilding of our natural world. Ending slavery is a step forward in fixing our earth. There’s always been a moral case for stopping slavery; now there’s an environmental reason too.

* * *

There is a deadly triangular trade going on today that reaches from these threatened villages and forests in the most remote parts of the earth all the way to our homes in America and Europe. It is a trade cycle that grinds up the natural world and crushes human beings to more efficiently and cheaply churn out commodities like the cassiterite and other minerals we need for our laptops and cellphones. To stop it, we have to understand it. My initial comprehension of this deadly combination was purely circumstantial. I knew what I thought I had seen all over the world, but suspicions weren’t good enough. I needed to collect real and careful proof, because if the link between environmental destruction and slavery proved real, and our consumption could be demonstrated to perpetuate this crime, then breaking these links could contribute toward solving two of the most grievous problems in our world. I thought if we could pin down how this vicious cycle of human misery and environmental destruction works, we could also discover how to stop it.

To get a clear picture has taken seven years and a far-reaching journey that took me down suffocating mines and into sweltering jungles. I started in the Eastern Congo, where all the pieces of the puzzle are exposed—slavery, greed, a war against both nature and people, all for resources that flowed right back into our consumer economy, into our work and homes and pockets. I knew if I could get there—and stay clear of the warlords and their armed gangs— I could begin to uncover the truth.

* * *

Let’s talk about our phones.

The helicopter dropped like an elevator in free fall to dodge any rebel-fired rocket from the surrounding forest. We landed inside a tight circle of UN soldiers on a small soccer field. The soldiers stood with their backs to us, aiming their automatic weapons at the tree line, as the blast from the rotors whipped the tall grass around their legs. As we touched down, jeeps and four-by-fours roared up, bringing injured soldiers for evacuation, goods and gear to ship out, then reloading with arriving people and equipment. Yet children stood a few feet from the soldiers, complaining about the disruption to their soccer game.

Moments later, after our papers were checked, the UN pilot, a Russian with a rich baritone, called the children together and got them singing French folk songs. From the way the kids mobbed him, this had to be a feature of every landing. Their voices rippled with giggles, like water flutes. As I listened, I took in the mountains ranged so beautifully around us. It seemed, for a moment, like paradise. But there was trouble here. No electricity, no running water, and the enemy at the gates.

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Tin ore. Via Flickr.

For months I’d been searching for a way to reach a rebel-controlled mine in the chaos of Eastern Congo. The only way in, I discovered, was on a UN forces helicopter, since rebels control all the roads. Now I had arrived at the jungle settlement of Walikale (pronounced “Wally-cally”), about thirty miles from the mine. Walikale is like Fort Apache, an isolated outpost surrounded by hostile forces, dense forests, and sheltering a handful of locals who scurried here through the bush to avoid capture after their villages were overrun by rebels.

As we climbed the hill from the landing field, I took my cellphone from my pocket, out of habit more than anything. I assumed it would be useless here, but then watched as the little bars built up on its screen. No electricity or running water, no paving on the roads, and good luck if you needed a doctor, but incredibly I had a signal. “This is why I am here,” I thought, “I can’t live without my phone, and people here are dying because of it.”

Let’s talk about our phones for a moment. Yours is probably within arm’s reach right now. Our phones are so ubiquitous, we tend to forget that they only arrived on the scene about twenty years ago. Sure, there had been “radio telephones” for decades, but those were big brick walkie-talkies that only worked in a few areas. It was when scientists figured out how to assemble the hexagonal “cells” linked to towers, and then switch and share all the calls through the phone system, that the explosion came. In 1995 about fifty million cellphones were purchased worldwide, by the end of 2013 sales were up to two billion and there were more phones in the world than people. By 2014, 91 percent of all human beings owned a cellphone. It’s a phenomenal success story, greatly improved communication supporting and supported by new businesses and super-clever design teams, together fueling an economy that spouts money out of Silicon Valley like a fountain.

The scientists who made the packets of our conversations jump from tower to tower, the engineers that made our phones smaller and smarter, the designers that made our phones fit snugly into our lives, together they changed everything. The idea that people once had to call a telephone wired to a building in the hope of reaching a person who might be there seems quaint, clunky, and a little absurd to our children. All the power of modern technology transformed a world of copper wires into a world where billions of conversations fill the air. It was brilliant, but it had a cost. The ideas might have come from Silicon Valley, but to make our phones we needed other minerals, like tin and coltan. And while silicon is found everywhere, tin and coltan are concentrated in only a few parts of the world. The frictionless genius of our creative class, which we see every day in our lives and in advertising, leads us to support environmental destruction and human enslavement that we never see. We want our clever phones, the market needs resources to make them, and getting those resources creates and feeds conflict. It turns out that the foundations of our ingenious new economy rest on the forceful extraction of minerals in places where laws do not work and criminals control everything. Places like Walikale.

* * *

Rubber and ivory worth millions were arriving in Europe, but the ships going back carried little besides weapons [and] manacles.

The threat looming over Walikale, the cause of all the lawlessness, is the echo of a much larger conflict. The two provinces in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo are like the elbow pipe under your sink, the place where ugly stuff sticks and festers. After the 1994 genocide in next-door Rwanda, first many of the Tutsi refugees, and then many of the perpetrators, Hutu militias and soldiers, as well as an even larger number of Hutu civilians, fled across the weakly policed border and settled in the Eastern Congo. The militia men took over villages and stole land, goods, food, and even people at gunpoint. Nineteen years later they are still there, living like parasitic plants, their roots driven deeply into the region. Chaos reigns, government control has collapsed, and ten different armed groups fight over minerals, gold, and diamonds—and the slaves to mine them. The big dog is a Hutu group called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a force that is not democratic and has never tried to liberate anyone or anything. The one thing that all these warring groups have in common is that they make slaves of the local people.

These eastern provinces are called North Kivu and South Kivu, and they hold some of the wildest, most deeply beautiful and seriously dangerous terrain on the planet. The mixture of mountains, river valleys, great lakes, and volcanoes is spectacular, though the endemic parasites and diseases, including typhoid and plague, are a constant threat. The nature reserves and national parks in the Kivus are some of the last places to find a number of threatened animal species, like the great gorillas. Two kinds of elephants roam the forests, and hippos work the riverbanks. High in their treetop nests, this is the only place in the world to find our closest relative, the bonobo chimpanzee. Sometimes called the “hippie chimp,” bonobos are known for resolving conflicts peacefully, through sexy cuddling rather than violence—a trick humans haven’t quite mastered. But when the rebel groups pushed into these protected forests and habitats, deforestation and illegal poaching followed, and the bonobo population fell by 95 percent. But this isn’t the first time the Congo has been trampled.

At the very beginning of the twentieth century there was an unquenchable demand in America and Europe for an amazing new technology—air-filled rubber tires. The Age of the Railroad was ending. Henry Ford was making cars by the million, bicycles were pouring out of factories, freight was moving in gasoline-powered trucks, and they all ran on rubber. The Congo had more natural rubber than anywhere else. To meet this demand King Leopold II of Belgium, in one of the greatest scams in history, tricked local tribes into signing away their lands and lives in bogus treaties that none of them could read. He sold these “concessions” to speculators who used torture and murder to drive whole communities into the jungle to harvest rubber. The profits from the slave-driving concessions were stupendous. Wild rubber, as well as elephant ivory for piano keys and decoration, was ripped out of the forests at an incredible human cost. Experts believe that ten million people died. It is the great forgotten genocide of the twentieth century. One witness was an African-American journalist named George Washington Williams. He coined the phrase “crimes against humanity” to describe what he saw.

The genocide, the killers, and the corrupt king were exposed by a whistle-blower, an English shipping clerk named Edmund Morel. Assigned to keep track of the goods flowing in and out of the Congo, he realized that rubber and ivory worth millions were arriving in Europe, but the ships going back carried little besides weapons, manacles, and luxury goods for the bosses. Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out. Morel kept digging, getting the facts. He was threatened and then thrown out of his job, but he didn’t stop. By 1901, he was working with others in a full-time campaign against slavery in the Congo that brought in celebrity supporters like Mark Twain.

Punch_congo_rubber_cartoon

“In the Rubber Coils” depicts King Leopold II as a snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s just over one hundred years later and anti-slavery workers are back in the Congo; the sense of déjà vu is strong. Armed thugs still run the place. More fortunes are being made, more people are being brutalized, and slave-produced commodities are still feeding the demand for new technologies. It’s not rubber this time though— instead slaves wielding shovels clear-cut forests and tear away hilltops to expose the grubby gray-brown pebbles of coltan. Once smuggled out of the Congo, the mineral will be transformed into “legal” Rwandan coltan and lawfully exported. It’s magical geology; Rwanda has few coltan deposits but has become one of the world’s biggest exporters of the mineral. It’s going to take more than an alert shipping clerk to expose the human slavery at the heart of this trade—the thugs are better at hiding these days. But the truth is out under there in the rain forests and protected habitats suffering the onslaught of slave workers driven by rogue militias. That’s why I’m in Walikale with my co-worker Zorba Leslie, lugging my backpack along a dirt track with ruts that would swallow a motorcycle.

Walikale used to be a sleepy little village, but now it is crowded with refugees from the countryside. War has swept through many times in the last fifteen years, and everywhere is ruin. Rusty half-tracks and jeeps are shot up and crushed along the road. Along the dirt track, three boys, homemade drumsticks flying, are doing their own version of STOMP on a battered and derelict Russian army truck. The tin-roofed school where we’ll sleep was used as a rebel base for months. The walls are pocked with bullet holes, windows are smashed, and our food is cooked over an open fire. As soon as we’ve dropped our packs, an order comes to report to the local Congolese army commander, so we walk back through town and climb the bluff to the fortified camp. In the old colonial office, the atmosphere is genial but chilly.

“You can’t go to the mine.”

“Hold on, we’ve got clearance and permission,” I say. It’s taken us days to get here, and there’s no way I want to stop now.

“I have a spy in the rebel camp, their leaders were alerted that foreigners were coming in on the helicopter.”

“So? They can’t know why we’re here. We’ll just slip in, shoot some film, and get out.”

“No,” the commander says. “They know two Americans came on the helicopter, and Americans make a great target, worth lots of ransom. There’s a squad waiting to ambush you as soon as you leave town.”

I swallow hard and give in. He knows this war-torn jungle like we never will. We’ll just need to be patient and cunning.

* * *

The ‘resource curse’ falls on the poorest parts of the world when their muddy pebbles, little-used forest, or some other natural resource suddenly becomes extremely valuable.

To visit any town or village in Eastern Congo is to walk on rubble. Children play, people do their best to get by, but destruction is everywhere. And yet, there is a paradoxical air of paradise. The land is a high plateau, so even though the region sits almost on the equator, the air is cool and fresh, the sunlight crisp. Daytime temperatures are surprisingly comfortable all year round. The rich volcanic soil is dark, crumbly, and fertile. Most nights there is short, intense rainfall that refreshes the lush greenery and riot of flowers. The low mountains are covered to their peaks with forests. Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes, holds fish, and about a thousand feet below the surface is a cache of 72 billion cubic yards of natural gas ready to fuel a new economy. Mountains, flowers, sun, water, fresh fish, fresh vegetables, fruit, and dark rich soil—this place has it all.

Nature is willing, but the people are broken. War has shattered minds and bodies and any semblance or expectation of order; life has become a scramble for survival in a population divided between those with guns and those without. This chaos is the perfect breeding ground for slavery. When valuable minerals are stirred into the mix, the odds of a slavery outbreak are even higher.

The same cycle that fueled the slavery and genocide of 1901 continues to revolve today, not just in Congo but around the world. It’s a four-step process; simple in form yet complex in the way it plays out. In the rich half of the world step one arrives with great advertising fanfare. A new product is developed that will transform our lives and, suddenly, we can’t live without it. Consumer demand drives production that, in turn, requires raw materials. These materials might be foodstuffs or timber, steel or granite, or one of a hundred minerals from glittering gold and diamonds to muddy pebbles of coltan and tin. Step two is the inevitable casting of a curse—the “resource curse” that falls on the poorest parts of the world when their muddy pebbles, little-used forest, or some other natural resource suddenly becomes extremely valuable. In a context of poverty and corruption the scramble for resource control is immediate and deadly. Kleptocratic governments swell with new riches that are used to buy the weapons that will keep them in power. But for every bloated dictator there are ten lean and hungry outsiders who also know how to use guns, and they lust for the money flowing down the product chain. Soon, civil war is a chronic condition, the infrastructure of small businesses, schools, and hospitals collapses, the unarmed population is terrorized and enslaved, and the criminal vultures settle down to a long and bloody feed.

Step three arrives as the pecking order stabilizes and gangs begin to focus less on fighting each other and more on increasing their profits. A little chaos is good for criminal business, but too much is disruptive, even for warlords. Black markets also need some stability, and with territories carved up and guns pointing at workers instead of other armed gangs, the lean and hungry men begin to grow fat themselves. Step four builds on this new stability that serves only the criminals. Secure in their power, the thugs ramp up production, finding new sources of raw materials and new pools of labor to exploit. Thus the curse has reached its full power. In that lawless, impoverished, unstable, remote region, slavery and environmental destruction flourish.

* * *

A good-sized city whose main industry is foreign aid has a strange feel. It’s as if the Salvation Army mounted a revolution and took over a city the size of Tallahassee, Florida.

A few days before flying to Walikale we arrived at the border city of Goma, a good place to start if you want to understand what is happening in Eastern Congo. It’s the gateway, the depot, the UN’s eastern headquarters, basically the transportation hub for the provinces of North and South Kivu. It is also the home of hundreds of international non-governmental organizations that stepped in when the government collapsed. These groups work to protect human rights and women’s rights, end sexual violence, meet the needs of children and orphans, and promote disarmament, environmental justice, rule of law, medical care, food security, education, religious tolerance, democracy, and more. Today these organizations fill the buildings with their offices and the streets with their distinctive four-wheel-drive SUVs. The result is a town like no other. Billboards and posters line the streets, advertising not consumer goods, but how to prevent infectious diseases and domestic violence. A good-sized city whose main industry is foreign aid has a strange feel. It’s as if the Salvation Army mounted a revolution and took over a city the size of Tallahassee, Florida, and the only jobs available for local people were servicing a bunch of do-gooders.

And looming over the city is the volcano. Called Nyiragongo, it has erupted some twenty-four times in the past one hundred and thirty years. Large eruptions occurred in 1977, 1982, and 1994, culminating in a devastating explosion in 2002. That year a fissure eight miles wide opened on the side of the mountain and lava boiled out toward Goma. Nyiragongo’s unusually fluid lava sped down streets at up to sixty miles per hour, swept away buildings, covered part of the airport, destroyed 12 percent of the city, and made 120,000 people homeless. Fortunately, early evacuation kept the death toll to 150. Today the hardened lava is everywhere and streets end abruptly at a low wall of rippled black rock, a frozen torrent. Life persists on top of the hardened lava while Nyiragongo continues to churn and smoke. It’s ominous, but in Goma the volcano is not the main worry, for the city also sits on political and ethnic fault lines whose eruptions are more deadly and widespread than Nyiragongo’s.

An_aerial_view_of_the_towering_volcanic_peak_of_Mt._Nyiragongo

Mount Nyiragongo. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What is happening in the Eastern Congo today is the reverberation of the political and ethnic explosion that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and left all of East Africa reeling. In April of that year, the world watched in horror as genocide swept through Rwanda. Nearly a million people were murdered and another two million fled the country. Large numbers of refugees, mostly ethnic Tutsis who were the target of the genocide, escaped across the border into Congo. An unstoppable river of twelve thousand people per hour smashed through the no-man’s-land on the edge of Goma. Most of these refugees ended up in vast and ragged camps built on the lava fields around the city. When cholera hit two months later, killing fifty thousand people in just a few weeks, the rock was too hard to dig graves, and bodies piled up along the roadsides.

Just a hundred days later, in July 1994, the genocidal regime in Rwanda was overthrown. Vicious Hutu militias (also called Interahamwe) were now fleeing into Congo, along with detachments of Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated army. Once they crossed the border the Hutu militias began attacking the Tutsi refugees who lived around Goma and in turn Tutsi militias committed brutal attacks on Hutu refugees. Because the Tutsis had long opposed the rule of Congo’s dictator, Joseph Mobutu, he refused to protect them, and a free-for-all erupted. As violence escalated, neighboring countries and ethnic groups piled into the fight, some supporting the Tutsis, some the Hutus, some wanting to support Mobutu, some wanting to attack him, and some just making a grab for the region’s diamonds, gold, and coltan. The conflict expanded into what’s now called the First Congo War. When the smoke cleared about a year later, some half a million people were dead, and Mobutu was gone, replaced by a new president backed by Rwanda and Uganda. But the peace was short-lived. In 1998 conflict broke out again, the flash point for the Second Congo War being those same Hutu militias that now controlled the refugee camps in Goma.

The Second Congo War is the modern world’s greatest forgotten war. Raging from 1998 to 2003, and overshadowed on the global stage by the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent “War on Terror,” it involved eight countries and about twenty-five armed groups. By its end 5.4 million people were dead, a body count second only to the two world wars. It was a war of unimaginable savagery. Rape was a key weapon, suffered by many hundreds of thousands of women and a large number of men and children. The Batwa pygmies, the original inhabitants of Congo’s forests, were hunted like animals, killed, and eaten. In 2003 a journalist for the British newspaper The Independent interviewed refugees in a protected camp and reported their firsthand accounts of massacre and terror:

Katungu Mwenge, 25, saw her daughters aged seven and nine gang-raped and her husband hacked to death by a rebel faction. She fled with her four other children to Eringeti, where they were using banana tree leaves for blankets under a leaking plastic roof.

Tetyabo-Tebabo Floribert, 18, was badly traumatised. Rebels decapitated his mother, three brothers and two sisters. Anyasi Senga, 60, fled her village with 40 others and lived in the bush for two months, surviving on wild fruits and roots. Ambaya Estella’s three children and her husband were killed by the rebels, who killed most of the inhabitants of her village using axes and machetes.

No one “won” the Second Congo War; it simply collapsed from exhaustion as resources and energy ran out. Despite agreements to set up a central government, the provinces of North and South Kivu were left as a patchwork of armed camps, each area under the complete control of one of the hostile militias. Roads, schools, hospitals, water supplies, electricity, homes, and farms were destroyed; most of the region was in ruins. All services, including the rule of law, had ceased to exist. This was the crucial next step in the creation of an environmentally destructive slavery enclave.

At the end of the war the militias turned to new ways to control and exploit local people. With “peace” they began a transition from being mobile fighting units to established garrisons controlling fixed areas of land. Settled into their new territories, more and more of their attention became devoted to the lucrative trade in minerals. Their mining profits increased and bought more luxury items, staples, weapons, and, without the fighting, more ways to enjoy their power.

Each militia staked a claim to as much land as they could control and defend. The boundaries set in this landgrab, however, remain fluid and armed groups who think they have a chance will invade the land of a neighboring militia. It’s hard to understand this much chaos, but imagine a city where the police and government have simply run away and five or six mafia gangs are running everything, each based in a different neighborhood. The thugs have total control and can do whatever they please, so just crossing from one part of town to another means paying a tax or risking attack or even enslavement. It’s a kind of feudalism, but these feudal lords have no sense of responsibility toward the people on their turf and there is no overlord king to keep order. For the thugs the townspeople are more like stolen cattle; there’s no investment beyond the effort of capture and little reason to keep them alive. Now imagine that when the government sends in the National Guard to confront the mafia, the Guard just carves out its own territory, settles in, and becomes another mafia. That’s the Eastern Congo.

When they’re looking for territory to grab, the militias first seek out minerals. Throughout this part of the world, there’s gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite (the ore that gives us tin), and niobium for electronics, as well as molybdenum and wulfenite for making highgrade steel; all of these are near the surface and easily mined. For years local people have been supplementing their crops with money earned gathering minerals from streams and along cliffs and fissures. The armed gangs want much more; they want all the minerals, no matter how deeply they must dig, and they want them now.

Once they’ve pinpointed a desirable area to attack, the militia will surround the village at night and take it by force. They want to catch the villagers at home and prevent them from running away into the forest. If the land around the village has plentiful minerals, the soldiers just move into the houses. One, two, or three soldiers will force their way into a family’s home, announcing, “We’re living with you and you will do as we say.” Anyone who resists will be killed. Then the men and boys are put to work digging and hauling minerals. Women and girls also dig and sort stone, do the housework, cook, and suffer regular sexual assaults. The violence and rape increase when the soldiers get drunk or stoned.

* * *

By the twentieth century local governments in at least twenty counties in Alabama were dealing directly in slaves, taking contracts from the United States Steel Corporation and other companies to deliver a fixed number of ‘convicts’ per year.

While the violence and atrocities continue, some armed groups came to realize that slave-driven mining paid better and brought less attention than rape and massacre. And to supply more and bigger mining, these thugs developed “legal” ways to enslave people.

There are many paths into slavery. The most obvious is the blatant physical attack that captures a person and overpowers him with violence. But throughout history people have been lured and tricked into slavery as well, sometimes even walking into slavery in the belief that it is opportunity not bondage. In the Congo today, just as in America not long ago, there is yet another way—a slave-catching machine constructed from a corrupt, often completely bogus, legal system that feeds workers into mines.

This fake legal system is an almost foolproof way to get slaves and is most efficient when there are ethnic, tribal, or racial differences to exploit. It works like this: a traditional chief, a policeman, a local official, or a member of a militia will arrest someone. The charge might be anything from loitering to carrying a knife or being a “terrorist.” Whatever the charge, the arrest has either no basis in law or rests on some petty and rarely enforced minor ordinance. It is simply a way of gaining control over a person. Playing out this charade, the arrest will then be followed by one of three outcomes. The victim may simply be put straight to work in the mines as a prisoner under armed guard. Alternately there may be a sham trial in which the individual will be “sentenced” to work and again taken to the mines as a prisoner. Finally, the fake trial may result in the arrested person being “convicted” and then fined a significant sum of money. Unable to pay the fine, either the individual will be sent to the mine to “work off” the fine, or the debt will be sold to someone who wishes to buy a mineworker. All outcomes lead to the same place: an innocent person is enslaved in the mines. And the charade shows how the vacuum of lawlessness can be filled by a corrupt system that maintains a veneer of legitimacy.

This system has an eerie parallel with a virtually identical slave-catching machine called “peonage” that existed in the American Deep South from about 1870 until the Second World War. The parallels between the enslavement of mine workers in Alabama at the beginning of the twentieth century and Congo today are so close as to be uncanny. This isn’t the result of some sort of criminal cross-fertilization—I couldn’t find a single person in the Congo who had ever heard of the American “peonage” slavery, or knew it had been practiced in the Deep South for more than fifty years with duplicate results to what is happening in the Congo. But both were driven by the same dynamic and can perhaps be undone in the same way.

Peonage slavery had an evil elegance, a simplicity that meant slaves were easy to come by and easy to control. Alabama, with rapidly expanding iron and coal mines from the 1880s, operated the system on a huge scale. Under Jim Crow laws virtually any African-American man could be arrested at any time. Sometimes no charge was made, but to keep up appearances such minor crimes as vagrancy, gambling, hitching a ride on a freight train, or cussing in public might be listed as the cause for arrest. If you were a young, strong-looking African-American male, you were fair game. Brought before a local justice of the peace or sheriff, the prisoner would invariably be found guilty and ordered to pay a fine well beyond his means. At that point the sheriff, another official, or a local businessman would step forward and say that they would pay the fine, and in exchange the convict would have to work off the debt under their control. The magistrate would agree and the prisoner would be led away by their new “owner.” The number arrested and convicted was pretty much determined by the number of new workers needed by the mining companies or other white-owned businesses. Once enslaved, the prisoners could be worked any number of hours, chained, punished in any way—including confinement, whipping, and a technique resembling water-boarding—and kept for as long as their “owner” chose. Some men who were arrested and never charged still labored in the mines for decades. A long stint in the mines was the exception, however, not because the slaves achieved their freedom, but because mortality was as high as 45 percent per year due to disease (pneumonia and tuberculosis were common), injury, malnutrition, and murder.

Convicts_Leased_to_Harvest_Timber

Convicts leased to harvest timber, c. 1915, Florida. Via Wikimedia Commons.

By the twentieth century local governments in at least twenty counties in Alabama were dealing directly in slaves, taking contracts from the United States Steel Corporation and other companies to deliver a fixed number of “convicts” per year. The demand for iron ore miners was so great that U.S. Steel let it be known they would buy as many prisoners as the local sheriffs could arrest on top of the number already contracted. Local officials made fortunes from these lease contracts. No one knows how many African-Americans were enslaved in this way, but since the practice was common in all the Southern states, and especially in Georgia and Alabama, few would dispute that hundreds of thousands of black American men were illegally enslaved under peonage.

Understanding American peonage slavery is important because it helps us to see Congo slavery as part of the long history of bondage. The close link between conflict, prejudice, and slavery unites the two stories. In 1865 the American South was shattered and destitute. The Civil War had killed at least 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. The postwar chaos worked nicely for those who still retained some power, setting the stage for them to act with impunity and supporting the emergence of armed groups like the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. If anything, the turmoil following the Second Congo War was even greater than that after the American Civil War, but some of the outcomes have been almost identical. For the poor South, it was cotton and iron ore that carried the “resource curse,” and kleptocratic and racist local governments moved quickly to stabilize and legitimize their control. Whether it was sharecropping or peonage slavery, the result was great riches for a white elite, and an ongoing degradation of the land and destruction of the vast Southern forests.

* * *

There were twenty-four black men digging coal for using ‘obscene language,’ . . . thirteen for selling whisky, five for ‘violating contract’ with a white employer, seven for vagrancy, two for ‘selling cotton after sunset.’

The rebel troops who were waiting to ambush us outside Walikale went back to their camp after a few days, which allowed us to slip around to another site nearer the militia-controlled coltan and cassiterite mines. Led to a ruined school by local human rights activists, I spoke with young men who had managed to escape the mines. They told me that the threat of enslavement came from both the armed groups and the local chiefs. As one man explained, “They always need workers.” Because tribal chiefs control much of the land, he continued, “they make up charges against people when they need more labor. You might be walking through a village or across their land, you might have brought something to sell, but suddenly you are grabbed and charged with stealing, owing someone money, or being from a rebel group. No one knows what the laws are, so how can we defend ourselves? This happens all the time!”

These escaped slaves said that people weren’t arrested just to feed the mines. Another young man explained: “A tribal chief will decide he wants to dig a big fishpond, so he will make a deal with a local militia captain. The captain will arrest people and find them guilty of some crime and then sell them to the chief to ‘work off’ their fines.” Businessmen buy workers this way as well. As one man put it, “A businessman will pay the police to arrest people, and then sentence them to three or six months of work, but once they are in the mine they just belong to the businessman, they’re not allowed to leave.” He went on, “Any incident can be used as an excuse to arrest people. Just north of here a dead body was found in the forest. When the body was found, everyone around there was arrested, one whole family was arrested. The local administrator ordered that every member of the family be fined $50 and each one had to dig a fishpond for the local boss. Then the police took up the case, and they arrested the whole family again, there were seventeen of them, fining them even more money. The police worked them hard for ten days and then gave them back to the local administrator. All of these arrests were done with the complicity of local chiefs who either get a cut of the money or the labor.”

Another escaped slave jumped in, shouting in his agitation, “The chief gets a cut! The leader gets a cut! The militia gets a cut! We get nothing! You can pay your fine and still be sent off to the mines and forced to work!”

I asked the men if any proof was needed for an arrest. “No,” one man said, “it can be done without proof, without a piece of paper, without even any testimony. There are lots of people in the [nearby] Bisie mine who are trapped this way, I think more than half the workers. Some are even sent from towns far away.”

Having been in the mines, the men had a deep understanding of how the peonage slavery played out—“The fines or debts are usually for $100 or more, but at the mine the debt is recalculated into the number of tons of ore you have to dig and supply. When you’re on the site, any food you eat, any tool you use, anything at all, is added to the debt and the number of tons of ore you have to dig. The number of tons depends on the boss and how hard or easy it is to get the ore out of the ground.”

These young men understood that the fine and the debt were just a trick to enslave more workers, a ruse aimed at convincing workers that someday they might pay off their debt and leave. One of them explained it this way: “Once you’re at the mine, in that situation, you are the boss’s slave. Many people are taken that way and then die there from disease or cave-ins, and your family never even knows you’ve died; you just disappear. Miners can start with this false debt and then spend ten to fifteen years as a slave to the boss.” Enslaved miners often disappeared in early-twentieth-century Alabama as well; as Blackmon, a writer on American peonage, explains, “when convicts were killed in the [mine] shafts, company officials sometimes didn’t take the time to bury them, but instead tossed their bodies into the red-hot coke ovens glowing nearby.”

The peonage system of enslavement is also a good way to settle scores and intimidate people. One of the young men in the Congo explained, “Let’s say someone owes me money, but doesn’t want to pay. I go to the chief, the chief has him arrested and he’s sent to the mine to dig ore. I get a cut of the ore he digs, the chief gets a cut, and the person running the mine gets a cut. The man who owed me money gets nothing, and he can end up being there for years.”

Peonage slavery was used in the same way to keep the black population intimidated in the Deep South. Blackmon gives the “crimes” listed by one Alabama county when “felons” were sold to the mines: “There were twenty-four black men digging coal for using ‘obscene language,’ . . . thirteen for selling whisky, five for ‘violating contract’ with a white employer, seven for vagrancy, two for ‘selling cotton after sunset’—a statute passed to prevent black farmers from selling their crops to anyone other than the white property owner with whom they share-cropped—forty-six for carrying a concealed weapon, three for bastardy, nineteen for gambling, twenty-four for false pretense [leaving the employ of a white farmer before the end of a crop season].” Just swearing at or even near a white person could send a black man to the mines. Men and some women were arrested for any behavior that was thought to threaten authority. In a chilling demonstration of racist power in that Alabama county, the crimes of eight more men were listed as “not given.”

On one hand it is discouraging to see how history repeats itself, but on the other hand the parallel between peonage slavery in the Deep South and in the Congo today helps our understanding. There is no wide-scale legally concealed slavery in the American South today. With luck we can learn from how Americans brought that cruel system to an end what lessons might help the Congolese end their peonage slavery today.

A shortcut to success would be to attack the problem with more resolve than was demonstrated by the US government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Resistance by Southern congressmen to violate “states’ rights,” a careful concealment of the peonage slavery by major American corporations, and the readiness to believe that African-Americans were always guilty of something, meant those who exposed this slavery were sidelined and their stories suppressed. For decades it was Department of Justice policy to ignore this slavery, leaving it to local judges to try any cases that somehow surfaced. Often these were the same judges who were accomplices in the crime. The ultimate deciding factor that ended this travesty was not concern for those enslaved, but fear on the part of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the lead-up to World War II, Roosevelt worried that “the second-class citizenship and violence imposed on African Americans would be exploited by the enemies of the United States.” But it was not until five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that Attorney General Francis Biddle issued a directive ordering the Department of Justice investigators and prosecutors to build “cases around the issue of involuntary servitude and slavery.” Like the United States in the 1870s, the Congo waits for justice, and that requires the rule of law.

Fortunately, unlike the United States in the nineteenth century, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, however shambolic, is a member of an international community of countries with shared legal conventions and treaties. While corrupt politicians often rule, today they know they are in the wrong. Congo, and all other countries, have agreed that the international law against slavery is paramount, taking precedence over any national law and enforceable by any government anywhere. So far, no country has decided to use this international law to help Congo end slavery, but the tools are there.

* * *

From the Book: BLOOD AND EARTH: Modern Slavery, Ecoide, and the Secret to Saving the World by Kevin Bales
Copyright © 2016 by Kevin Bales
Published by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

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