The campaign against conflict minerals – causing more harm than good?

Rape, abduction, life threats–these are just a few ways militias recruit workers for their illegal mines, usually in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite campaigns to put an end to the problems surrounding conflict minerals, many academics and Congo experts argue that the campaign may be causing even more severe problems for ordinary Congolese people on the ground.

Conflict minerals are most commonly defined and known as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, and these minerals are mined, smuggled and sold to finance the conflict in DRC. The DRC has huge mineral reserves and vast gold and diamond deposits which have not yet been explored. In a country that has experienced the deadliest conflict in recent history, leaving more than 5.4 million people dead between 1998 and 2007, these minerals have become one of the most important sources of revenue for armed groups in financing their struggles. To put the extent of the problem into perspective, 35 per cent of Congo’s total mineral profit belongs to these armed groups. Ordinary people are forced to work as a way of protecting their family and earning enough money to send their children to school or pay for medical care. They end up mining ‘conflict minerals’ which are smuggled out of Africa to smelting companies in Asia, and are finally used to make the laptops, mobile phones and tablets we buy and use every single day. With check points under armed militia control at the borders with Rwanda and Uganda, it is relatively easy for armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and even fractious elements of the Congolese national army, to smuggle minerals out of the country.

The human rights violations and continuation of fighting associated with conflict minerals are what the Enough Project’s ‘Raise Hope for Congo’ campaign aims to put a stop to. Celebrities such as Ryan Gosling and Ben Affleck have joined the campaign to try to make more people aware that the products they buy are made with these conflict minerals. Their objective is to create a consumer demand for conflict-free products so that companies such as Apple, Intel and other technology corporations act to address the problem.

ENOUGH Project

Image courtesy of ENOUGH Project, © 2010, some rights reserved.

The campaign has achieved some successes in the past few years. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act Section 1502 was passed in 2010 and adopted by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 2012. This Act means that many companies in the US must report where their minerals have been sourced in order to make the supply chain more transparent. Apple claims that it has reached a ‘milestone’ in this process as it now audits 100 per cent of its suppliers using conflict minerals which may be linked to militia groups in the DRC. This company has also acknowledged that it could have gone ‘conflict-free’ much sooner if it had re-routed its supply but understands that this would not have benefitted ordinary Congolese people. Although these efforts should be commended to an extent, several academics and Congo experts have warned that the effects of the new legislation and new policies employed by companies like Apple may be having more damaging effects on the situation in the DRC than we realise.

In an open letter, several academics criticised the campaign against conflict minerals for ‘fundamentally misunderstanding the relationship between minerals and conflict in the eastern DRC’. Although these minerals influence the form and duration of the fighting in the DRC, they are not the actual cause of the conflict. Different militias may exploit and smuggle these minerals as a way of funding their struggle, but their motivations vary greatly from land disputes to ethnic tensions to access to local resources. The militias can also smuggle different resources such as charcoal and marijuana, for example, in order to make more money.

In addition, the letter makes the point that between 8 and 10 million people in the DRC depend on artisanal mining as a way of making money. Poverty throughout the country is severe and many have been displaced by the conflict. With scarce opportunities, many have even joined the militias as a way of making enough money to survive. The Dodd-Frank Act also unintentionally encourages companies to look for their supplies outside of Congo, meaning that artisanal miners could face losing their jobs. Although companies like Apple, as mentioned above, supposedly have made progress in making their supply chain more transparent, the academics have warned that this may not reflect reality. The smelting companies that technology companies ask to check the source of the minerals used are very far away from the actual mines in the DRC, making it very difficult for them to verify exactly what kind of mine the minerals have come from.

These are not the only problems with the campaign against conflict minerals. Many journalists have also advised that reforms to demilitarise the DRC are vital in addressing the causes of conflict in the region. The corrupt government in Kinshasa has also been labelled as a contributing factor to this problem. President Kabila has recently delayed elections in a bid to stay in power. Global Witness has reported that mining deals have been struck in order to gain support and consolidate the power of the President. This shows the potential unwillingness of the government to reform the mining systems in the country, meaning that legislation put in place by the international community can only go so far.

Despite the efforts of campaigns to reduce the problems linked to conflict minerals, it looks like the situation is far from being resolved. Although there has been some progress in making mines in the DRC ‘conflict-free,’ a lot of gold mines are still under armed militia control. More consultation with local Congolese people and leaders of the country is needed if there is going to be lasting change in how these minerals are mined. Only with a more nuanced approach as well as effective reforms and projects to help people displaced by conflict and unemployed due to the closure of mines will the campaign achieve its ultimate objectives.