Panning for gold

Controlling the use of conflict metals in electronics

Key metals used in electronics are extracted from war-torn regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. E&T finds out what is being done to stop this evil trade in conflict metals.

How is it that I might legally own pieces of the Congo? Under UK law, any bit of Congo-sourced tin or tantalum inside my cell phone or computer belongs to me, which seems fair enough. On the other hand, at what point did I get the legal right to own something illegally extracted from another country?

This uncomfortable question is posed by Professor Leif Wenar of King's College London, who has written extensively about the global trade in natural resources, including 'conflict minerals' from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Enough Project's recent spoof of Apple's 'Get a Mac' ad campaign illustrates the issues more graphically by showing the Mac and PC characters with trouser pockets bulging with tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold ores. The video explains that violent armed militias in the DRC make hundreds of millions of dollars from selling these metals to electronics companies.

'A lot of this stuff comes all the way from the Congo,' says PC at one point, 'where it's been fuelling the deadliest conflict in the world since the Second World War. Five million killed in the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped. Horrible stuff.'

There's been plenty of hand wringing in the electronics industry and beyond about DRC-sourced metals for years, but little progress towards better lives for the Congolese. Things are changing, though. America's Dodd-Frank Act, the bill prompted by the global economic crisis, became law in July and includes a provision against 'conflict metals'. The Act now requires any Wall Street-listed firm whose products contain metals obtained from cassiterite (tin ore), coltan (tantalum ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), gold or their derivatives to tell the Securities and Exchange Commission whether they are sourcing these minerals from the DRC or adjoining countries. Companies must now submit audited reports on the measures they have taken to avoid sourcing the minerals from mines controlled by armed groups that may be guilty of massacres and other atrocities.

The first practical trial to track minerals from individual mines in DRC began in June at the Nyabibwe site in South Kivu. It was set up by the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI), the industry's representative body, with $600,000 support from tin trading companies, smelters, the tantalum industry and downstream users including Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Philips, RIM and Sony. It is hoped a similar sum of money will extend the project for another six months, at sites to be selected from the four relevant provinces of DRC: North and South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga.

Bagged and tagged

The scheme involves project staff allocating a series of tags to the mine, each marked with a unique serial number. The tags are fixed to the bags of ore as they leave the mine and additional tags are added as the ore goes through various middlemen and processing steps. Information about the bags' weight, the date, price and to whom the ore is being sold is recorded in a duplicate-paged logbook at each link in the supply chain. The idea is to match up information from the tags with records in the logbooks, in order to be able to cross-check and verify the source of the ore.

Around 17t of cassiterite is now being tagged in this way each week at the Nyabibwe site, by a team consisting of project staff and local SAESSCAM (Service d'Assistance et d'Encadrement du Small-Scale Mining) and Division of Mine agents. Data collected so far suggests this site can produce around 800t of minerals annually.

Implementing the tagging scheme is difficult, because mining areas often lack electricity and Internet access so the written data has to be input and checked on an on-line database after the event. At Bisie in North Kivu, the most important cassiterite mining area in E F eastern DRC and next in line for tags, setting up the scheme will be particularly tough. Bisie is at the heart of the conflict zone and can only be reached by walking for two days through jungle. According to Kay Nimmo, ITRI's manager of sustainability and regulatory affairs, the army presence and who controls each particular mining site need to be factored into any improvement plan. Addressing these issues will be a long-term process.

'You have to make contact with the people in charge of a certain mine or mining area, and put in a tracing system and then explain why they may be required to change some of their informal practices of taxation etc,' she said. 'If they carry on, they need to understand that they will no longer be supplied with the tags that allow them to sell minerals from that area.'

Such efforts are admirable but raise many questions.

'Realistically, the tin industry cannot take it on itself to certify mines as conflict-free and the UN does not have the capacity to do this either,' says Wenar. 'Most people believe that certification should be down to the DRC government. However, one of the government's primary concerns is to maintain its armed forces, including keeping former rebels integrated into the army. In practice this means allowing people wearing Congolese uniforms to control some mines directly or indirectly, and to 'tax' the minerals while committing human rights abuses.'

How exactly does a certification scheme reduce conflict?

Less war?

While competition between armed factions for control over minerals is a factor in the DRC civil war, the root causes of the war include regional and ethnic issues.

'The collapse of the state in the eastern region has left a power vacuum, which has allowed these groups to proliferate,' says Harrison Mitchell, director of the consultancy Resource Consulting Services, which has worked with the UK Department for International Development to understand how to improve governance of natural resources in DRC. 'The key issue here is the collapse of power rather than the economic incentives of one group or another. Certification does a lot of good things, but it doesn't necessarily stop rebels with AK47s taxing a trade route.'

In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that certification helps stop conflict. The Kimberley Process for diamond certification is often presented as a positive example, but it was only put into effect in 2003 once the diamond-fuelled wars in Sierra Leone and Angola had ended.

More worrying is that the Dodd-Frank Act may disproportionately affect the Congolese artisanal miners, who are perhaps the most vulnerable of stakeholders. Artisanal miners scratch out a subsistence living using hand tools, because most other ways of making a living in eastern DRC have been destroyed by the war. When militias march across your farmland and steal your cows every few months, there is not much incentive to plant crops. Artisanal miners can at least pack up and move on in a few hours if necessary. However, this kind of mining is the most difficult to certify. The easiest option for electronics companies is to remove conflict areas from the supply chain entirely, and source from industrial mining operations in more peaceful regions.

As Kay Nimmo from ITRI points out, such actions will stop any legal trade but may do nothing to prevent the trade that is funding arms.

'The percentage of tin coming from DRC is just 3 per cent of global production, which could make it quite difficult to fully trace if smuggled out,' she says. A report published last year by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC estimated that 40t, or $1.24bn, of gold is smuggled out of DRC each year. On that basis, armed groups may derive several million dollars of revenues each year from the gold trade.

Mitchell poses a more blunt question: 'Once the NGOs have moved on to the next crisis, where's the plan to improve the livelihoods of the 100,000 or so people scratching a living in the dirt? There is a reluctance to engage with artisanal miners because it's time-consuming and costly. If the NGOs can mobilise the electronics companies and donors to engage with these vulnerable communities that live and die in poverty that would be very useful.'

Cleaner trade?

In the long term, these issues may strengthen the case for efforts such as Leif Wenar's Clean Trade initiative, an attempt to change how we trade all natural resources. Wenar, who is a visiting professor at Stanford and Princeton this year, will be leading round-table discussions with representativesfrom the UK and US governments, the extraction industries, NGOs and academics, to try and draft new legislation.

The Clean Trade initiative starts from the premise that most importing states have signed human-rights treaties that say the citizens of a country should ultimately control their country's resources. Yet if we own bits of the Congo in our phones and laptops, our country's laws must be violating these commitments somehow.

'Importing states decide who to give the legal right to sell them oil, gas and minerals. Today, governments decide to grant that right to armed groups and extremely authoritarian regimes in exporting countries,' says Wenar. 'Governments need to take responsibility for who they put their consumers into business with, and make sure that the citizens of exporting countries have some control over who is selling off their national assets.'

The campaign group Global Witness has been testing these ideas in the courts, most recently with an application to review why the British government has not applied sanctions to companies listed in a 2009 report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC as sourcing 'conflict minerals' from armed militia.

Whether an extra layer of illegality is going to help much is impossible to tell at this stage, but as Harrison Mitchell says: 'If there is an economic imperative that is strong enough, the stuff will get through.'

Improving the DRC situation is another matter. 'Fighting insecurity with interventions in the economic domain is a difficult fit, 'says Mitchell. 'First, the Congolese government, with the help of international partners, needs to establish security and stop the crimes of violent actors, including their own security forces. Concurrently, the mineral trade should continue to reform and work to become a good corporate actor in the DRC, which should include engaging with artisanal miners to improve their livelihoods.'

Meanwhile, the instability and violence continues. At the time of going to press, DRC's President Kabila has suspended all mining in eastern DRC areas, following reports of mass rapes by militia groups in the area in early August. ITRI has put its tagging project on hold.

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