Nairobi - Smuggling of ivory, gold and timber worth over a billion dollars a year is fuelling war by funding dozens of rebel groups in Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN report warned Friday.
"Militarised criminal groups with transnational links are involved in large-scale smuggling" of "gold, minerals, timber, charcoal and wildlife products such as ivory" of up to $1.3 billion (1.2 billion euros) each year from eastern DRC, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said.
The revenues finance at least 25 armed groups -- but up to 49 according to some estimates -- that "increasingly fuel the conflict" in the war-torn region, the report read.
Control over the mineral-rich areas is a key factor in strife that has raged in eastern DRC's two Kivu provinces for decades, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
"These resources lost to criminal gangs and fuelling the conflict could have been used to build schools, roads, hospitals and a future for the Congolese people," said Martin Kobler, UN chief in DRC, and head of the 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO.- Funding thousands of rebels -
Gold forms the largest section, with organised crime gangs earning up to $120 million a year from the trade.
The vast majority of income earned is taken by gangs outside the deeply poor region, but the estimated two percent that goes to the armed groups, some $13 million a year, provides the funds to prolong warfare.
"This income represents the basic subsistence cost for at least 8,000 armed fighters per year, and enables defeated or disarmed groups to continuously resurface and destabilise the region," the report read.
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Criminal gangs use their cash to push a strategy of "divide and rule" among the rebel groups, to ensure that no one rebel force can dominate and take over the trade, the report added.
The DRC has massive resources of gold, copper and cobalt but also diamonds, iron, nickel, manganese, bauxite, uranium and cassiterite, the principal global source of tin. Yet most of the country's people live in poverty.- Gorillas targeted -
"Imagine if we could spend hundreds of millions of dollars of the lost revenues stolen by criminal gangs in eastern DRC instead to pay teachers, doctors and promote business opportunities and tourism?" Kobler added.
"We must turn gold into taxes, and taxes to development, for a prosperous future."
Much of the rebel activity consists of abuses against civilians and illegal exploitation of natural resources, with rebels being increasingly "predominantly economically motivated" rather than having a political agenda.
"The networks of these criminal groups are well embedded in the DRC and neighbouring countries," the report added. North and South Kivu border on Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
The region is also home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park.
"The habitats of these gorillas are heavily exposed to deforestation from burning of charcoal," the report read.
"Militants have targeted gorillas as retribution because rangers have interfered in the illicit charcoal trade," it added, noting that more than 200 park rangers have been killed protecting the apes.
In addition, "political and economic interests" are driving people to live in the park as part of a push to declassify its protected status, and allow it to be commercially exploited for logging and oil pumping, UNEP warned.
"Environmental crime robs countries of revenues that could have been spent on sustainable development and the eradication of poverty," UNEP chief Achim Steiner said.