This issue came on the radar from the late 2000s onwards, as human rights groups started to join the dots about how to apply economic leverage that could stop the cycle of violence in eastern DRC.
When you buy your next phone, Facebook and Instagram are probably closer to your thoughts than conflict minerals in Africa. Yet there is a growing awareness of how, in the complex modern world, supply chains of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold can lead back to gun-toting militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world’s poorest country.
Following two civil wars since the 1990s, DRC’S central government has been holding a fairly tenuous grip on the eastern part of the country, restrained by a lack of passable roads. Despite this poor infrastructure, DRC is a producer of the four conflict minerals, notably tantalum, where it represents 20-50 per cent of world production.
The reality on the ground is sometimes a horror story, with armed groups and militias controlling the local population via rape and violence, and running mines where adults and children are often forced to work as slaves in shifts of up to 48 hours.
Many have been dying in tunnel collapses. Of the millions of dollars earned, much is spent on weapons. Minerals are often illegally exported, generally via Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda to the east, and are often processed in East Asia. Corporations then purchase them on the open market, unless they are one of the few that have conflict-mineral-free policies in place.
This issue came on the radar from the late 2000s onwards, as human rights groups started to join the dots about how to apply economic leverage that could stop the cycle of violence in eastern DRC. This involved identifying end-uses such as gold in jewellery, tin as a food can lining, and tungsten in ‘carbide’ cutting tools. However it was the electronics sector that stood out the most. Electronic items such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and MP3 players are liable to contain all four of the questionable minerals, and are purchased new by vast numbers of consumers worldwide.
Until recently, it was nearly impossible to avoid contributing to the DRC’S woes because ethical alternatives were virtually non-existent. However, disclosure laws in America and the EU have helped to turn things around in an encouraging direction. In the US, a section of the 2010 Dodd-frank Act required companies to disclose annually their use of the four conflict minerals originating from the DRC.
Within a few years, armed groups had been pushed out of most of the mines. In 2014, seventy per cent of the ‘3T’ smelters (tantalum, tin and tungsten) had passed conflict-free audits, streamlining traceability and making it more difficult for purchasers to hide behind excuses. The availability of better ethical options fends off the risk of avoiding the DRC altogether and putting bona fide miners out of work. Sadly, the US legislation was watered down in 2014 following a legal challenge by the National Association of Manufacturers, resulting in the corporate sector no longer being required to refer to the term ‘ DRC conflict free’ in relation their products. This could send the progress achieved so far into reverse gear.
At an activist level, the Conflict-free Campus Initiative involves students putting up motions supporting conflictfree electronics and can involve