Can a Wall Street Reform Law End a Resource War in Africa?

The sweeping Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act could bring an end to the resource war that has ravaged the eastern mining regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the last decade and a half, according to the Enough Project, a Washington-based non-profit that seeks to end genocide.

Signed into law by the Obama administration in 2010, Dodd-Frank was passed in response to the financial crisis of 2008. Many Dodd-Frank regulations are targeted toward American banks and other financial institutions that took too much risk with other people’s money, nearly collapsing the world’s economy.

Supporters of Dodd-Frank claim the law finally brings regulation and transparency to hedge funds while also establishing regulatory agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tasked with preventing predatory mortgage lending.

Dodd-Frank is being described as the most comprehensive effort to reform Wall Street since the Great Depression. But whether the law actually checks Wall Street greed has yet to be seen. Recent surveys by the Davis Polk law firm state that of the nearly 400 Dodd-Frank rules and regulations, 110 of them have yet to be finalized, suggesting that massive lobbying efforts by the banks are watering down the law.

While Republicans and corporate interests try to weaken Dodd-Frank, there is a regulation in the law that goes far beyond Wall Street and into the rugged mining regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where a 15-year long resource war for cobalt, gold, and the “3Ts” – tantalum, tungsten and tin – has taken the lives of 7 million Congolese, according to the Catholic relief effort, Caritas Internationalis.

Starting in May of this year, the regulation, which will be governed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), will require that all American corporations scour their supply chains to make certain their products are not manufactured with conflict minerals from the DRC. If their due diligence fails to prove the minerals they use are not from DRC mines controlled by militias, then the corporation cannot affix the label ‘DRC Conflict Free’ to their product.

The Enough Project contends this Dodd-Frank regulation is already forcing change for the better in the DRC. Sasha Lezhnev, a senior analyst with the organization, says he’s been on-the-ground in the DRC where, due to Dodd-Frank, he’s witnessed defections from the 30 or so militias that control the conflict mines and their minerals.

Lezhnev believes these defections mean Dodd-Frank is convincing the Apples, the Sonys, and the Lockheed Martins of the world that the logistics to ensure a supply chain is ‘DRC Conflict Free’ is just too costly, so these corporations are turning their backs on DRC minerals, which were formerly some of the cheapest on earth.

“Profits from three of the four conflict minerals have gone down between 50 to 75 percent because it is no longer profitable to sell to the Chinese or others who are outside of the Dodd-Frank system,” says Lezhnev, citing Enough Project research. “That’s very significant. If we did not have Dodd-Frank all these armed groups that are giving up would still be running many, many of these mines. The general trend is positive. This economic component was missing for years in the Congo and now we have one.”

Lezhnev says all interested parties remain cautious because the certification process to make all DRC mines conflict free “is not yet complete and about half way there.” The good news is, for the first time, independent monitors from the Congolese government are certifying mines once controlled by militias, Lezhnev explains.

He wishes the process was moving faster, but certification in the DRC is momentous because a legitimate mining trade is not only a win-win for this nation where the per capita income is just $220 US dollars a year, but also for the West and its insatiable appetite for personal electronics.

The electronics industry’s monstrous need for tantalum came to light over the last decade when it was discovered the industry’s increasing demand for the mineral had insidious sway over the DRC’s resource war. It appeared that whenever the world market price for tantalum began to spike, so did the violence in the DRC. Tantalum is mainly used to make electronic capacitors needed to manufacture cell phones, video game consoles and big screen TVs.

“The smarter your phone or tablet is, the more it needs tantalum because tantalum capacitors are the smallest and most reliable instrument to make your text messages, your email functions and app functions work,” says Lezhnev. “Without tantalum – the mineral that has the largest supply in the Congo – you’re going to get large bulky products that don’t work as well.”

What is disconcerting is the dogged-effort by American corporations and their allies to suppress this potential war-ending regulation that’s expected to affect more than 6,000 manufacturing firms and have a major influence over supply chains.

Earlier this year the National Association of Manufacturers together with the US Chamber of Commerce sued the SEC over the Dodd-Frank regulation, arguing it costs too much to audit supply chains for DRC conflict minerals. But in July the US District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge.

Forbes Magazine even went so far as to run headlines that called the regulation the “worst law of the year.”

Robert J.S. Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University, is an expert on supply chains. He says corporations have a short memory when it comes to the success certifying supply chains out of Africa can have. Certification was the lynchpin reason behind the end of the “Blood Diamonds” conflict that inflicted atrocities across areas of East Africa, he says.

“Tracking diamonds from their point of origin worked,” Ross explains. “It cut the supply of money to the factions that were exploiting diamond laborers.”

The ‘DRC Conflict Free’ regulation is a victory for activist groups that are fed-up with the world’s disenfranchised toiling so the West can have their luxuries, says Ross.

“Corporations are frequently forced to pay attention when advocacy groups raise embarrassing issues,” he says. “Apple did nothing about Foxconn suicides until they were forced to. They don’t care until someone makes them care.”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.

Other Toward Freedom articles by John Lasker on resource conflicts in Africa:

Following the Mineral Trail: Congo Resource Wars and Rwanda

Looting Africa: Canadian Company Eyes Gold in Democratic Republic of Congo

Of Blood and Gold: How Canadian Mining Companies Loot the Congo

Inside Africa’s PlayStation War

Resource Wars in Africa: AFRICOM and the Reach of US Corporations