Gun­men still con­trol met­als mined for mod­ern gad­gets

Malta Independent - - TECHNOLOGY - AP Tech­nol­ogy Writer Bran­don Bai­ley

Vi­o­lent gun­men still men­ace pick-and-shovel min­ers in east­ern Congo, a new report finds, de­spite years of ef­forts to loosen their grip by lo­cal re­form­ers, Western ac­tivists and com­pa­nies like Ap­ple and In­tel that use min­er­als from the African re­gion in their prod­ucts.

Con­di­tions are im­prov­ing for min­ers who dig the ore that’s pro­cessed into tin, tung­sten and tan­ta­lum for smart­phones and other elec­tron­ics, though some still face in­ter­fer­ence from armed groups. But slump­ing de­mand and de­pressed prices for those min­er­als have driven many work­ers to dig in­stead for gold that’s used in elec­tron­ics, jew­elry and other con­sumer prod­ucts sold by Western com­pa­nies.

Armed groups hold sway over min­ing sites where nearly twothirds of Congo’s gold min­ers ply their trade. There, un­der threat of vi­o­lence, work­ers are of­ten forced to pay il­le­gal “taxes” that sup­port cor­rupt army units, rebel groups or unau­tho­rized mili­tias. Some­times they’re con­scripted into forced la­bor.

Those are the find­ings of an ex­ten­sive field sur­vey by the In­ter­na­tional Peace In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice, a Bel­gian non­profit whose re­search is fre­quently cited by ac­tivist groups and pol­icy ad­vis­ers to Euro­pean and Western of­fi­cials. IPIS is re­leas­ing its find­ings to­day.

The de­tailed report bol­sters the re­cent ob­ser­va­tions of ac­tivists. “Things are slowly but surely chang­ing,” said Holly Drangi­nis, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Enough Project, a U.S.-based ad­vo­cacy group. “But armed groups still ben­e­fit from gold, and they are wreak­ing havoc on com­mu­ni­ties that are near the mines.”

REIGN OF VI­O­LENCE

IPIS has sent re­searchers, teamed with in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, to in­spect more than 1,600 min­ing sites in Congo over the last four years. Nearly 240,000 peo­ple, mostly men but many sup­port­ing fam­i­lies, work as so­called ar­ti­sanal (i.e., in­de­pen­dent) min­ers at those sites.

For decades, an as­sort­ment of armed rebels, home­grown gangs and cor­rupt army units have reigned over parts of east­ern Congo, where many peo­ple live in poverty de­spite the rich min­eral re­sources un­der­ground. Th­ese armed groups are known for ter­ror­iz­ing lo­cal res­i­dents through pil­lag­ing, forced la­bor and sex­ual as­saults on women and girls.

In re­cent years, Western ac­tivists have pres­sured cor­po­ra­tions to stop us­ing con­flict min­er­als from ar­eas con­trolled by armed groups, which profit from sales of those met­als.

The met­als are used in a va­ri­ety of prod­ucts. But ac­tivists have par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on mak­ers of smart­phones, com­put­ers and other elec­tronic com­po­nents, since they use large quan­ti­ties of tan­ta­lum in elec­tri­cal ca­pac­i­tors and tin as solder for cir­cuit boards, along with smaller amounts of tung­sten and gold in var­i­ous com­po­nents.

MORE DIS­CLO­SURE

Hu­man rights groups also per­suaded the U.S. Congress to ad­dress the is­sue in the 2010 fi­nan­cial re­form bill known as the Dodd-Frank Act. One sec­tion of the law re­quires cor­po­ra­tions to file an­nual re­ports show­ing what they’ve done to de­ter­mine if they’re us­ing tin, tung­sten, tan­ta­lum or gold from Congo neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

Though it’s been three years since the re­port­ing re­quire­ment took ef­fect, most com­pa­nies say they’re un­able to trace all the min­er­als they use, since met­als usu­ally travel through com­plex sup­ply chains that in­clude mines, re­gional whole­salers, re­fin­ers and in­de­pen­dent com­po­nent-mak­ers.

Com­pa­nies in some sec­tors, par­tic­u­larly com­puter and elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers, are pro­vid­ing more in­for­ma­tion each year, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Chris Bayer, who re­viewed com­pany fil­ings for the non­profit Devel­op­ment In­ter­na­tional. But he said nearly two-thirds of the 981 com­pa­nies from all in­dus­tries that filed con­flict min­eral re­ports this year still didn’t iden­tify the coun­try of ori­gin for all the min­er­als they used that are cov­ered by the law.

Still, ac­tivists and aca­demics say the Dodd-Frank re­quire­ments have prompted com­pa­nies to ex­am­ine sup­ply chains and un­der­write au­dits by in­dus­try groups that pres­sure sup­pli­ers to stop buy­ing from il­le­git­i­mate sources. The au­dits and a track­ing sys­tem de­vised by in­dus­try and Congo’s gov­ern­ment are in­tended to cer­tify that ore comes from mines free of armed in­ter­fer­ence. or

SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY RIP­PLES

Sil­i­con Val­ley’s In­tel is one of very few com­pa­nies to claim con­flict-free sta­tus for its mi­cro­pro­ces­sors and chipsets, cit­ing au­dits of smelters in its sup­ply chain. But In­tel says it can’t be sure about other prod­ucts it sells that con­tain com­po­nents made else­where.

Ap­ple, which also re­quires its smelters to un­dergo au­dits, says it has no in­di­ca­tion that any of its prod­ucts con­tain min­er­als that ben­e­fit armed groups. But while Ap­ple re­ports more in­for­ma­tion than most com­pa­nies, it stops short of declar­ing its prod­ucts “con­flict-free” and says those au­dits may not be enough. Ap­ple also does its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions, fo­cus­ing par­tic­u­larly on gold be­cause it’s sus­cep­ti­ble to smug­gling and weak over­sight.

Ac­tivists don’t want U.S. com­pa­nies to sim­ply stop us­ing min­er­als from Congo, be­cause that would hurt min­ers and their fam­i­lies. But some whole­salers have turned to sources else­where. And while the num­ber of ar­ti­sanal min­ers work­ing in Congo has re­mained sta­ble, IPIS es­ti­mates about 80 per­cent, or 193,000 work­ers, are now dig­ging for gold. They pro­duce about 12 tons of gold each year, worth about $437 mil­lion when sold at lo­cal trad­ing sites.

IPIS found 64 per­cent of gold min­ers work­ing at sites con­trolled by armed groups — only a slight de­cline from 67 per­cent in 2010.

CON­GOLESE ARMY “TAXES”

More of­ten than not, the gun-tot­ing groups are units of the Con­golese army, known as the FARDC. But the sol­diers aren’t just there to keep the peace. IPIS found ev­i­dence that army units in­ter­fered with min­ing op­er­a­tions, usu­ally by col­lect­ing unau­tho­rized taxes, at twothirds of the sites where they were present.

Other sites were un­der the con­trol of armed mili­tias, in­clud­ing a rebel group no­to­ri­ous for “loot­ing, ex­tor­tion, killing and sex­ual vi­o­lence” in Congo’s Ituri dis­trict, IPIS re­ported.

IPIS re­searcher Ken Matthy­sen, who co-au­thored the new report, es­ti­mates the vast ma­jor­ity of Con­golese gold is ex­ported out­side le­gal chan­nels. He said it’s smug­gled into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries to dis­guise the true source, and then of­ten ex­ported to the United Arab Emi­rates.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials say gold is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to trace through lay­ers of whole­salers, re­fin­ers and other mid­dle­men. They also blame on­go­ing civil un­rest in the DRC.

“But that shouldn’t stop us,” said David Bouf­fard, vice pres­i­dent at Signet Jewel­ers, a lead­ing re­tailer that says it works with au­di­tors and in­dus­try groups to make sure it doesn’t use metal from con­flict sources. “We have to help as much as we can.”

SOME IM­PROVE­MENTS

Mean­while, about half the min­ers dig­ging for tin, tung­sten or tan­ta­lum ore in the Congo are work­ing at sites cov­ered by an in­dus­try in­spec­tion sys­tem. IPIS found 21 per­cent of 3T min­ers at sites un­der the con­trol of armed groups. That’s a big im­prove­ment from 57 per­cent in 2010.

But ex­perts say the “tag and trace” sys­tem used for track­ing 3T ore isn’t per­fect. U.N. ad­vis­ers re­ported last year that 3T min­er­als were still be­ing smug­gled from East­ern Congo into Rwanda. They also found a black mar­ket for al­tered or coun­ter­feit tags. A sep­a­rate report by the Enough Project, a hu­man rights group, found Con­golese in­spec­tors are poorly paid and sus­cep­ti­ble to bribes.

Tan­ta­lum mines in east­ern Congo are still vul­ner­a­ble to vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to the Enough Project. Its report cited an in­ci­dent in Jan­uary 2016 when a group of Con­golese sol­diers fired on civil­ian min­ers in the town of Rubaya, in­jur­ing nine peo­ple.

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