Sarah Gillig Sunu, MEM ‘14, Nicholas School Communications Assistant
DURHAM, NC—Author and human rights activist John Prendergast spoke to an audience of about 150 at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment on Thursday, November 29, about his experiences working to promote peace in the Congo.
The lecture, the inaugural event in the Ferguson Family Distinguished Lectureship in the Environment and Society series, focused on conflict minerals tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, that are mined in the Congo and which incite violence in that area.
A long-time activist in Africa and co-founder of the Enough Project, Prendergast peppered his talk with personal experiences and stories that moved beyond the statistics of the Congolese conflict. Calling it the “deadliest war in the world that no one has ever heard of,” Prendergast drew for his audience a direct link between the minerals in our phones and mobile devices and the sexual violence that rebel groups in the Congo use to suppress the Congolese people.
Real peace will not be achieved in Africa, Prendergast said, until the core issues that fuel the conflict are addressed.
Drawing parallels between the Congo as a developing country and an earlier period in the U.S., Prendergast pointed out that the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a nation-state is only 60 years old. When the U.S. was 60 years old (in 1843), slavery and the systematic oppression of Native Americans were rampant. The Congo’s natural resources have made its history particularly volatile, as various foreign nations sought to benefit from exploiting them.
But Prendergast stressed that there is hope for, and in, the Congo. Congolese activists, church leaders, women’s groups, community centers, and more are working to pressure companies and governments to change how they do business. And even though they are halfway around the world, Duke students are part of the movement.
The Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke (the Duke University chapter of the Conflict-Free Campus movement) led a student advocacy effort that culminated in approval by the Duke Board of Trustees to encourage ethical minerals sourcing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Prendergast recognized in particular the efforts of Stefani Jones (Duke 2013), chair of the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke.
“Your voices and actions matter,” Prendergast said. “We aren’t going to solve all of the Congo’s problems from the U.S., but we can play a major role in supporting the Congolese to find solutions. The answer is building alliances and solidarity with those on the ground courageously battling for change.”
Prendergast outlined three main elements of change, necessary to create lasting peace in the Congo. For years, there has not been any effort to deal with the economic drivers of combat in the Congo—the conflict minerals and the inflaming roles of Rwanda and Uganda. As a result, there is no process for peace. “Now is the time to get the U.S. government and the United Nations to support an African-led peace process that gets to the root of the problem,” Prendergast said.
Second, Prendergast called for real transparency in the mines. It is necessary to hold companies accountable for the sourcing of the minerals that they use, and require that minerals be exported peacefully and legally. Through challenging big companies, Prendergast said, we can “change the incentive structure and create a profitable center for peace instead of war.”
Finally, Prendergast called for justice for the victims of crimes against humanity. “There need to be consequences for the crimes being committed, and support in the international court for building justice into the Congolese justice system,” he said.
“I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that millions of precious human lives are at stake in that country. Remember when you log on to your laptop tonight that it wouldn’t be so cheap and easy without minerals from the Congo. Think of the women who have survived sexual violence when you make a call on your phone later,” Prendergast told the audience.
“We must speak out as loudly, and innovatively, and creatively as we can, and say ‘Not on our watch’.”
After the lecture, Dean Bill Chameides presented John Prendergast with a picture of raindrops in a North Carolina salt marsh by local artist Marjorie Pierson, a reminder of the ripples our actions make.
The Ferguson Family Distinguished Lectureship, formerly known as the Duke Environment and Society Lecture, is presented by the Nicholas School’s Dean’s Office. It was created in 2009 to bring to Duke major thought-leaders to speak on topics of significant social and environmental import. Past speakers have included EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, former Vice President Al Gore Jr., and energy visionary Amory Lovins.