Conflict mineral law does more harm than good for Congo, say experts

One of the few remaining miners digs out soil which will later be filtered for traces of cassiterite, the major ore of tin, at Nyabibwe mine, in eastern Congo. Aug 2012 (AP Photo/Marc Hofer)

The inclusion of a section on conflict-minerals in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act in 2010 was hailed as a victory by the advocates who fought hard for its inclusion. Some people were worried that the rule to make mineral trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo more transparent would harm the miners who depend on the work. An open letter from 70 activists and academics published today says that the worst case scenario is happening.

“[T]he conflict minerals movement has yet to lead to meaningful improvement on the ground, and has had a number of unintended and damaging consequences,” says the letter.

“Nearly four years after the passing of the Dodd-Frank Act, only a small fraction of the hundreds of mining sites in the eastern DRC have been reached by traceability or certification efforts. The rest remain beyond the pale, forced into either illegality or collapse as certain international buyers have responded to the legislation by going ‘Congo-free’.”

The result of the uneven rollout is a de-facto embargo on many mines in the Congo. That means that miners are out of work and they have to find other (re: sometimes illegal) means for supporting their families. The impact is significant when as many as 10 million people in the country rely on the industry for their livelihoods. The signatories of the open letter fear that legislation that was meant to make the Congo better may actually contribute to the country’s instability.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act was the result of hard campaigning by advocacy groups like Global Witness and the Enough Project. The argument they made was that, much like the diamond trade, the mining of minerals and their sale was helping support armed rebel groups in the eastern part of the country. These are the groups that have contributed to the insecurity across the region and committed some of the most heinous acts. An extremely high rate of rape in the region was held up of evidence as to how terrible things were for the people.

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Advocates argued that cutting off the finances made through mining would weaken the rebel groups. Therefore, 1502 would force mining companies to trace the source of their minerals and ensure that they are not associated with rebels. Campaigns appealed to people by pointing out how everyday devices, like computers and cell phones, rely on the minerals found in the Congo. Much like the connection made for diamond purchases, they said that the phones we hold are contributing to the problem. Enacting 1502 would help bring an end to that problem.

“This area has been home to some of the most horrific violence in recent history, driven by the extraction and trade of “conflict minerals” — tin, tantalum, and tungsten, or the 3T’s and gold. Armed groups, including the Congolese and neighboring armies, have battled for control of strategic minerals reserves in the region and prey off innocent communities for survival. These minerals provide the raw materials for industries as diverse as electronics, automobiles, and jewelry,” wrote Enough Project founder John Prendergast and Aaron Hall for the Huffington Post in 2011.

There were early warnings that the legislation could do more harm than good. Journalist David Aronson published an OpEd in the New York Times in August 2011 describing the negative impacts the legislation was already having on miners.

“In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife,” Aronson wrote.

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Today’s letter tells a similar story and is based on further research into the impact of the legislation. Some of the miners who lost their jobs due to the legislation are joining armed groups as a way to make fast money. That is making the problem of security in the country worse, not better. Meanwhile, the armed groups have moved on to other means of making money, such as the trade of goods like charcoal, marijuana, soap and palm oil.

“The same industry proposing to seek a clean market for Congolese minerals appears to be completely disinterested in local realities, including minerals’ actual “cleanliness,” as long as the market continues to function,” write Christoph Vogel and Ben Radley, two PhD students who do research in the region and signed the letter, in the Washington Post.

“Moreover, almost no corporate stakeholder – despite their nicely publicised corporate social responsibility policies – has visibly engaged in eastern Congo to help Congolese actors comply with regulations, improve labor security, or increase decent livelihoods. Most conflict minerals advocates have yet to address these shortcomings.”

The letter recommends reforms for addressing the mining sector in the Congo and supporting improved security in the country. The first step is to consult the people in the communities affected by the law. The consultations carried out by advocates during the process of creating 1502 were insufficient, they say. Other recommendations include better auditing structures for the mineral trade, a smoother transition for mines so that people are not jobless, fair competition in the mineral trade and a wider view of the problems faced by the Congo.

” If the conflict minerals agenda is to lead to positive change on the ground, legislation passed by national governments and steps such as those outlined by Apple or Intel need to be grounded in a more holistic approach that is better tailored to local realities,” concludes the letter.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.