Con­flict min­er­als

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.

Living Now - - Issues - By Martin Oliver

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

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