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The Debate on Conflict Minerals

STAND students present two opposing views on conflict minerals and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Please not that each author’s views are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of STAND as an organization.

Focus on the Conflict, Not the Minerals

When one asks what can be done to help stop the conflict in the DR Congo, the deadliest conflict since World War II, a common answer is to stop the purchase of conflict minerals. Advocacy groups such as The Enough Project and Global Witness have rallied around this potential solution, and it is not hard to see why. Despite its massive human costs, the DRC struggled for media attention for years. The DRC has massive reserves of gold, cobalt, tin, tungsten, and tantalum– a key component of consumer electronics- and both rebel groups and the Congolese army have profited from these resources.

Advocacy groups began publicizing the link between normal products such as laptops and cell phones to the devastating violence in the DRC and this narrative was able to bring far more attention than the conflict had previously received. This pressure culminated in the 2010 passage of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which mandated that companies track their supply chains from the DRC and surrounding countries and report whether they contain minerals that profit armed groups. Advocacy groups continue to push for compliance with Dodd-Frank and further efforts to restrict conflict minerals. While the conflict minerals approach has brought attention and legislative action on the DRC, this would only constitute progress if it had lead to increased peace and stability in the DRC, and it has not. The logic underlying conflict minerals advocacy does not reflect the realities of the conflict, and stopping the purchase of conflict minerals from the DRC will be at best ineffective and at worst cause significant damage.

Tracking whether conflict minerals enter a company’s supply chain, the central premise of Dodd-Frank 1502, is extremely difficult. In the eastern DRC, where the conflict is concentrated, roads are extremely poor and it is therefore very difficult to visit mines for the tracking process. Smuggling is very common and it is easy to bribe civil servants who receive small salaries, making it difficult to know where minerals really came from. The implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 in one stage also made it difficult to develop more effective processes. In September, the US Commerce Department confirmed that conflict minerals were nearly impossible to track. Companies therefore find it extremely difficult to know whether or not they are buying conflict minerals. Rather than trying to determine whether they are buying clean Congolese minerals or Congolese conflict minerals, the safest method for companies has been to not buy Congolese minerals altogether. For example, in April 2011, the month of the deadline for implementing Dodd-Frank 1502, sales of tin in North Kivu fell 90%. Mining is one of the largest industries in the DRC, and eight to ten million people rely on mining for a living. Dodd-Frank 1502 has forced as many as two million miners out of work as companies pulled out of an already extremely poor economy. It is important to note that miners forced out of work often have no savings or safety net to fall back on, and starvation and easily preventable diseases can become very real threats.

The massive blow to the Congolese economy could be justified as a necessary step towards ending the conflict, but this is not the case. Undoubtedly armed groups control some mines and profit from minerals, but minerals did not cause the conflict and stopping their purchase will not end it. Local conflicts over land, conflicts of identity and citizenship, and an extremely weak state make up the root causes of the conflict. Recently defeated M23, which was the largest rebel group in the DRC at the time, did not try to control mines and many leaders even left mining areas to join the group. According to Christoph Vogel, the only report to find that Dodd-Frank 1502 contributed to the defeat of M23 was commissioned by the Enough Project, one of the main advocates of the legislation. Conflict minerals are only one of the ways that rebel groups derive profits; they also operate taxation schemes, sell palm oil and cannabis, and are funded by outside patrons. In any case, without funds rebel groups would still have widespread access to weapons in a region that has seen conflict for decades.

The evidence since the implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 suggests that conflict mineral efforts have not stemmed the violence. With reduced employment in the mining sector armed groups are one of the only ways to gain a living, and some recent recruits to rebel groups cite the loss of mining jobs as reasons for joining. Also, there is little evidence to suggest that a loss of mineral profits have caused any armed groups to disband. In fact, since the 2010 passage of Dodd-Frank 1502 fatalities from conflict have increased slightly and conflict has increased in mining areas. While this does not prove that the legislation caused the increased violence, it does show that efforts of conflict mineral advocates have not had the intended effects.

In a best case scenario of conflict minerals legislation, armed groups would lose some funding but still continue to fight. That perfect legislation has not been written, and instead there have been huge negative effects on the Congolese economy while doing little to stop the conflict. Opposition to conflict minerals advocacy does not mean that we should not hold companies responsible for their actions or that we should pay any less attention to the DRC. It only means that our priority is the well-being of the Congolese people, and conflict minerals advocacy has not helped it.

Timmy Hirschel-Burns is a sophomore at Swarthmore College.  Follow him on Twitter at @TimmyH_B


Room for Debate: Conflict Minerals

When I first introduce the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) to interested students or bring up the issue in a meeting with local administrators or political officials, a common response I receive is “Oh, so it’s like Blood Diamond?”

“Sort of,” I usually reply, before launching into my CFCI pitch. I must admit that, as shameful as it may be for a human rights activist, or for any young person concerned with staying “relevant” in the pop-culture sense of the term, I have never seen Blood Diamond (I will suggest Blood in the Mobile, however). While many are quick to reference Leo DeCaprio’s blockbuster hit, very few liken the conflict minerals movement to 20th century divestment campaigns against South Africa and apartheid. As it turns out, this lack of comparison is warranted. Within the activist community at CFCI, our mantra is “Conflict-Free, Not Congo-Free.” The Conflict-Free campaign advocates positive investment in the DRC for the benefit of artisanal mining communities, rather than divestment. The reality holds that any “flight” of investment on the part of industry puts Congolese mining communities at an economic disadvantage. Here, I argue that conflict-free sourcing and investment in Congolese livelihoods are not, in fact, mutually exclusive goals.

In order to achieve “conflict-free” certification, mines in eastern Congo must ensure that certain populations are not permitted to work in the mines. The primary targets of these policies are minors, pregnant women, and others vulnerable to exploitation by militia groups and the Congolese military (FARDC). Over the summer, I spent two months in South Kivu, a province in the eastern part of the Congo. While in Congo, I had the privilege of speaking with Amani Mtabaro, Congolese community activist, former Enough Project field researcher, and feature in the “I Am Congo” video series. Amani’s current project involves identifying sustainable income-generating projects for the benefit of those forcibly removed from the mines. Congolese community researcher Janvier Murairi points to agriculture and formal artisanal mining zones as avenues for securing the livelihoods of artisanal miners in Congo. Murairi references the positive impact of Dodd-Frank Section 1502 on the lives of civilians in eastern DRC:

Opponents of the [Dodd-Frank] law say the economy of the province and the country has suffered greatly from this legislation. I do not share that opinion. I know Walikale, North Kivu, before the law. No school infrastructure, road, or hospital was built during Bisie’s boom era. It is unacceptable to me to see that the exploitation of minerals in Bisie happened alongside crushing poverty in the country. To conclude, I would say that the law is the work of humans, so it is perfectible. But we must recognize its merits, especially in terms of human rights.

In June 2014, the Enough Project released a report on the impact of the Dodd-Frank law on mining communities in eastern DRC. While findings are preliminary (the filing deadline for U.S. corporations to disclose conflict-minerals in their supply chains was May 31, 2014), they suggest marked reduction in violence and exploitation in Congolese mining communities. Additionally, the report cites anecdotal evidence suggesting that former miners unable to work in the mines due to the law – chiefly minors and pregnant women – have to date been successful in securing alternative income-generating mechanisms. A few highlights from the report include:

·       Armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed in eastern Congo.

·       The Dodd-Frank law and electronics industry audits have created a two-tier market for tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3Ts) from Congo and the region. Minerals that do not go through conflict-free programs now sell for 30 to 60 percent less.

·       Bisie, one of the world’s largest tin mines that generated hundreds of millions of dollars for a number of armed groups and criminal units of the army, is now largely demilitarized.

·       Twenty-one electronics and other companies now source from 16 conflict-free mines in Congo.

·       There is now a validation process to evaluate mines as conflict-free or not, and 112 out of 155 mines surveyed have passed as clean.

In the corporate sector, U.S. industry giants Intel and Apple undertook efforts to invest positively in the DRC, largely as a result of Dodd-Frank and conflict minerals activism. These corporations continue to use Section 1502 requirements as an opportunity not only to stem trade in conflict minerals but also to invest positively in Congolese communities. This shift in corporate attitudes toward sourcing from Congo is in large part attributable to consumer activism.

There is still much to be done to support peace and economic prosperity for mining communities in eastern DRC. As Congolese researcher Janvier Murairi states, Dodd-Frank Section 1502 is a human law and as such is perfectible. The Congolese government, corporations, and the international community must each do their part to support livelihood opportunities for artisanal mining communities in the DRC. Dodd-Frank 1502 continues to reduce the profitability of trade in illicit minerals, limiting the ability of armed groups to benefit from the mining sector. “Conflict-free” certification has resulted in a marked reduction in human rights abuses against artisanal miners, the shift away from conflict mining also mean that many miners have had to move to other areas to try to earn a livelihood while the responsible minerals trade slowly develops. An Open Letter from Congolese civil society leaders, calling for reforms in conflict-minerals legislation and its implementation on the ground, addresses this need for livelihood support programs. Recommendations include:

  • Increasing capacity-building and micro-finance programs for artisanal mining cooperatives in eastern Congo

  • Finalizing reforms to the minerals sector

  • Respecting the rights of artisanal miners and ensuring they are given access to a legal, profitable market for their minerals

  • Significantly enhancing programs to develop alternative sources of income, such as high-value agriculture

Some donors have set up programs, like USAID’s $20 million community recovery project, its $5.8 million Capacity Building for a Responsible Minerals Trade project, and the World Bank’s $79 million “Eastern Recovery Project.” This signifies progress, but communities in eastern DRC deserve more. If Dodd-Frank is to truly contribute to peace and economic opportunity in Congo, legal reforms must take into consideration local perspectives and realities on the ground.

Danielle Allyn is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @DNAllyn

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