For over 15 years, the population in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered the consequences of a neverending conflict. The area is a scenario of gross human rights violations such as massacres, mass rapes, large-scale population displacement or the recruitment of children by rebel groups and the national army among others. The figures are controversial but most of the studies estimate hundreds of thousands have been displaced and several million dead as a result of the violence and the connected hunger and diseases.
Mineral resources play an important role in the conflict dynamics and the violence in the east of the country. The different parties fight for the control of mines and trade routes, which are a significant source of income to continue their operations. However, it is important to highlight that minerals are not the root cause of the conflict.
Conflict minerals and blood phones
Since the last decade, the role of the mining and trade of mineral resources has gradually gathered the public’s attention.
Campaigns to raise awareness and lobbying have focused on the atrocities committed by armed groups, highlighting mineral trade as the source of funding. The ones targeting wider sectors of the population, especially in the United States (US), have been used to highlight the direct links between our smartphones, the minerals necessary for their production and the serious human rights abuses against the civil population in DRC. Terms such as “conflict minerals” or “blood phones” have been used to bring public attention to a conflict often labelled as forgotten.
In July 2010, the US Congress decided to legislate on the conflict minerals issue by enacting Section 1502 within the Dodd-Frank Act. As recognised in the text itself, the underlying objective was to deal with the fact that “exploitation and trade of conflict minerals originating in the DRC is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the eastern DRC, particularly sexual- and gender-based violence” committed by both rebel groups and the national army. The minerals affected are the so-called 3Ts, columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite and wolframite as well as gold.
This legislation imposes certain reporting and disclosure obligations on SEC-listed companies (Securities and Exchange Commission) regarding the origin of the minerals used in manufacturing their products and the due diligence measures taken to make sure that the purchase of those minerals has not contributed to the armed conflict in the DRC.
It was not until late 2012 when the rules regarding the specific obligations for companies affected by Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank were approved. The reason behind this delay was the difficulty to regulate such a technical issue and, especially, the lobbying and pressure exercised by some groups representing the interests of the industry and clearly against regulation, who tried to stop it from materialising.
The effects on the ground
Meanwhile, the mining sector in eastern DRC suffered. Companies stopped importing minerals from Congo due to the attached reputational risk. Even prior to disclosure of the final rules of Dodd-Frank, in September 2010 the Congolese government decided to suspend all artisanal mining exploitation and trade in the east of the country. It was a fruitless but also counterproductive attempt in interrupting the funding of armed groups (including the national army) and the violence. Artisanal mining is, unlike industrial mining, based primarily on manpower with little or no technology or machinery involved.
Apart from not contributing to solving the conflict, the artisanal mining suspension, together with the decrease in the international demand for Congolese minerals, had additional adverse effects on the socio-economic conditions in the east of the country.
Artisanal mining is an important source of income for families. It is estimated that between 500,000 and two million people work in the sector, where the number of miners active in gold mining is estimated to be four times higher that of those active in all 3Ts combined. This is relevant for the issue of financing of armed groups, given that the DRC’s gold production is exported almost entirely unrecorded. Therefore, armed groups who want to mine, trade or tax gold to finance their activities have plenty of opportunities.
Artisanal mining is an opaque and mostly informal sector where the notion of healthy and safe working conditions is inexistent. A description of the human rights abuses connected to the artisanal mining sector in the Congo would require an additional analysis detailing the collapses in the mines, child labour, forced labour, etc. Without diminishing the abuses related to artisanal mining, this article focuses only on the conflict minerals situation.
The decline in trade and the artisanal mining suspension have been considered the “de facto embargo” of minerals from eastern DRC. As a result, the income of many families decreased. Consequently, families’ capability to adequately feed themselves and send all children to school was affected, food habits worsened and their ability to buy medicines, make small investments in livestock or save part of their income were affected. The rudimentary economy of communities dependent on the mining sector was negatively impacted as consumption decreased.
Almost four years have passed since the enactment of Dodd-Frank. The violence continues in eastern DRC but many interesting things happened on the ground. For example, several domestic, regional and international initiatives have been implemented to try to break the financial link between mineral exploitation, trade and the conflict.
Observations from the present
At this moment, the European Union is drafting its own conflict minerals regulation. This month, very relevant details about the draft legislation will be disclosed, such as, the geographical scope (DRC or also other countries in conflict?), the resources affected by the regulation (minerals or also other natural resources?), the nature of the obligations for companies (voluntary or mandatory?) and the type of companies regulated.
In this context, it is important to analyse what happened in the DRC since the enactment of Dodd-Frank and use the lessons learnt to achieve an effective regulation at the EU level and to avoid further adverse impacts.
With this in mind, IPIS (International Peace Information Service) embarked on a research mission in which I took part. During 5 weeks we travelled across eastern DRC (a country almost five times the size of Spain) where we interviewed mining authorities, cooperatives, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders in the main cities. We also visited eight mining areas where we interviewed miners, wives of miners and local authorities.
The outcome of this study is documented in a report (http://ipisresearch.be/publications_detail.php?id=426) from which several general findings can be highlighted to understand the current situation and contribute to the effectiveness of the future EU legislation.
The evolution of the socio-economic situation
In all areas researched as part of the study, it was observed that the mining suspension and the de facto embargo had very negative socio-economic consequences on the local population.
However, during the last year, the situation has improved in certain areas, where mineral trade progressively increased. Often this occurred in concrete areas where some of the above mentioned initiatives to separate trade from conflict were implemented.
Some of those initiatives are, for example, the creation of Centres de Négoce where miners and other intermediaries trade under the supervision of local authorities and without the intervention of armed actors. Another initiative involves the implementation of a traceability system through the tagging of the bags in which minerals are transported. In this way, the origin and the different intermediaries in the supply chain can be identified.
The conflict is not only about minerals
As highlighted above, mineral resources are not the cause of the conflict although they contribute to prolonging it. It is evident that any strategy to put an end to the conflict will necessarily have to deal with the mineral resources issue. However, other problems are equally important: conflicts over land, the refugee situation, the lack of State authority in the east, the security sector reform, the demobilisation and integration of rebel groups into the national army etc.
In addition, it should be taken into account that conflict minerals are not the only source of income for armed groups. Illicit taxation, trade in charcoal, poaching, and foreign support networks are already alternative sources of income in use.
Participation of local stakeholders
One of the key elements to successfully address the complex issue of conflict minerals is the consultation and effective participation of local stakeholders in the design and implementation of the different initiatives trying to break the links between mineral trade and conflict.
On the ground, it is not uncommon to hear complaints on the manner in which some of these initiatives are implemented: without the sufficient participation of local stakeholders. For a permanent and sustainable solution to be achieved, the participation of local civil society, State agencies and local authorities among others is essential. However, it has be questioned whether there is sufficient political will and capacity to deliver solutions; given the institutionalised corruption that besets everyday activities.
Lack of political will
The conflict in the DRC in general and the issue of conflict minerals in particular, contain an interregional element. Thus, the solution will be the result of the collaboration between the countries in the region. However, it is not clear whether a true political will is present, especially if we consider the lack of success of the multilateral mechanisms and the support given to armed groups by neighbouring countries.
In addition, the government of the DRC seems to lack the political will to control its artisanal mining sector. This could be due to the absence of a strong financial incentive. Even though it is a source of income for hundreds of thousands of people, it would require a lot of effort to control the sector, for a limited financial return, especially when compared with the taxes that can be taken from the industrial mining sector. Besides economic reasons, the limitations of the State to achieve such a complex task should not be overlooked.
Is the state able to control the artisanal mining sector?
Experts call it “formalisation” – the capacity to regulate and implement policies to control the artisanal mining sector. However, there are several structural problems that do not allow formalisation to take place in today’s circumstances.
The State does not even control all the territory in the east of the country. Besides, many mining areas are under control of armed groups, almost half of those examined by IPIS so far (see map for more details http://ipisresearch.be/mapping/webmapping/)
Corruption among State officials is systemic. Public agents extort both miners and traders to complement a salary that is insufficient and often unpaid. Additionally, mining agencies lack the technical capacities and resources to control the sector: they lack personnel, the necessary training and vehicles to cover vast areas of territory.
The implementation of the conflict minerals initiatives
All initiatives designed or implemented on the ground to address the issue of conflict minerals and the linkages with the conflict require the participation of state agencies. The problem lies in the difficulty to imagine those public agencies being able to implement or supervise the functioning of the initiatives across the sector and not only in concrete pilot project areas.
A look on the bright side
It is difficult to be optimistic. However, there are reasons for hope. For example, important manufacturers in the electronics industry are trying to achieve a “conflict-free” supply chain for the minerals used their products without necessarily abandoning the DRC. In January, Intel publicly announced that all its microprocessors were becoming conflict-free, not without controversy. (http://www.obamaslaw.com/2014/01/09/intel/)
However, maybe the most important thing is the growing visibility and relevance of the debate regarding the origin of the minerals used in our consumer electronics. The demands of society make politicians consider legislating about this issue. Those from consumers make companies seek new sustainable solutions. We remain expectant before the next policy decisions at the EU this month and in the industry, hoping that they will contribute to the end of the conflict and the improvement of living conditions of the population.