A debate is currently raging among personal consumer electronics companies, Congolese activists, and NGOs over whether an American law can finally bring peace to a mining sector in Africa that has sacrificed so much for wealthier countries in the global north.
Two volcanoes shadow the rugged eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is abundant in rare minerals, such as gold, tin, tungsten and, perhaps the most controversial, tantalum.
The importance of tantalum cannot be overstated. The shiny and silvery mineral helped build the personal electronics revolution of the 1990s and beyond. Tantalum is highly conductive of heat and electricity, and necessary for the manufacture of cell phones, video games consoles, lap tops, and just about any hand-held communication or gaming device. Though the DRC and its mining sector in the eastern Congo does not have the largest reserves of tantalum, the US Geological Society earlier this year reported the DRC is the world’s second leading exporter of the mineral.
But while the global north was experiencing its digital and handheld revolution in the 1990s and early 2000s, the eastern Congo was a chaotic mess of militias, instability and wars. The commonly held belief is that the neighboring Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its exodus of refugees into the eastern Congo gave regional militias and neighboring rival militaries a surreptitious invitation to invade the region and plunder its minerals, such as tantalum, which were subsequently sold onto world markets and into the supply chains of Apple, Intel, Sony and numerous others.
These so-called “conflict mineral” wars in the eastern Congo either directly or indirectly caused six million Congolese to lose their life, according to the Catholic relief effort Caritas Internationalis and the International Rescue Committee, which have called these wars the deadliest since the Second World War.
Now global companies such as Intel and Apple, and an NGO they are working with, the Enough Project, are claiming that conflict mineral traceability programs they helped initiate are making a significant difference in the volatile mining regions of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The traceability program having the greatest impact is Dodd-Frank, or what the Congolese call “Obama’s Law”, which is a Wall Street-reform law passed by Congress in 2010, but has a provision requiring US companies registered on the US stock market to scour supply chains for conflict minerals originating from the DRC. If the company finds it has purchased Congolese minerals, it must be reported. It is not illegal to use conflict minerals from the DRC, but the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) now wants to know about it.
Intel and the Enough Project said in a joint statement that over the past two years Dodd-Frank and other traceability efforts resulted in “a 55 percent reduction in armed-group profits from tin, tungsten and tantalum mined in the region,” because metals brokers who buy from the eastern Congo turned their back on any minerals that may be tied to the militias.The de-facto ban and the drop in profits led to defections among the militias.
“That’s very significant,” says Sasha Lezhnev, a senior analyst with the Enough Project. “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.”
Without question a 50 percent cut in militia profits from the 3ts – tin, tungsten and tantalum – would be a meaningful development.
But while Congolese activists and experts, such as the Washington-based Friends of the Congo, agree that Intel and Apple’s intentions are good, a large number believe the Enough Project and their corporate allies are overstating the achievements of Dodd-Frank and other traceability programs. They say it’s much too early to call any of these programs a success.
What’s more, these same Congolese activists believe Dodd-Frank’s fundamental mission – denying conflict minerals to these militias – will not end the bloodshed because the causes of violence in the region are much more complex than just a war for gold and tantalum.
Dan Fahey is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley who spent part of 2014 working as a UN investigator in the rugged and hazardous eastern Congo.
Fahey shakes his head when he hears a handful of NGOs and their corporate partners are claiming conflict mineral profits for African warlords have plummeted causing defections.
“I don’t think there is any credible information to back that up,” says Fahey. “It’s too early to say anything about Dodd-Frank. It’s unleashed a whole series of events of which have yet to be determined. I think it’s too early to call it a success and too early to call it a failure.”
Indeed, one series of events Dodd-Frank unleashed was the de-facto ban on much of the Congolese mineral supply, which forced out of work thousands of Congolese “artisanal miners”, whether they were aligned with a militia or not.
Maurice Carney, the executive director for Friends of the Congo, agrees with Fahey. Carney says stating that Dodd-Frank has resulted in militia defections en masse and diminished profits for warlords “is debatable at best,” adding the defections the Enough Project are touting were not due to Dodd-Frank, but triggered from a series of offenses by the M23 militia that also caused 1 million Congolese being displaced.
“I don’t put much stock in Enough Project’s data,” says Carney. “I always wonder how they measure what the militia groups are making in profit when the trade is taking place on the ground.”
Fahey’s report for the UN was published in February of this year, and stated: “While there has been progress on traceability and due diligence efforts concerning minerals produced in the DRC, smuggling continues. Efforts to negotiate the disarmament of [armed groups] failed to produce meaningful results.” In addition, armed Congolese and foreign groups “continued to recruit, train and use child soldiers in 2014.Armed groups also committed a variety of other abuses, including torture, enslavement and sexual violence.”
What’s more, a recent public letter signed by 70 Congolese activists and experts echoes the concerns of Fahey and Carney. The letter states that Intel, Apple, and the US Congress fundamentally misunderstand the situation, and that “only a small fraction of the hundreds of mining sites in the eastern DRC have been reached by traceability or certification efforts.” And at one mine deemed by NGOs as conflict-free, “the mine still suffers from the sporadic influence of armed actors.”
Fahey believes the intent of Dodd-Frank and other traceability efforts is amicable, and supports the concept of companies searching their supply chains. But he says this strategy is far too limited a tool to fix the wide range of negative forces feeding the instability.
“The whole premise of Dodd-Frank and other traceability efforts, as intended by the Enough Project, is that armed groups are making their funding from minerals in the eastern Congo, and if you cut that link, you are going to solve this 25-year conflict. This approach is far too simplistic,” says Fahey.
Corruption within the DRC’s federal government and military are also major contributors to the instability, according to Fahey and Friends of the Congo, who contend that land disputes tied to ethnic tensions also add to the violence. Arguably the greatest contributors to the instability are DRC’s neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda, as they struggle for regional influence and protection of interests. Minerals are simply a means to financing the military operations related to these root problems, say both Fahey and Friends of the Congo.
Rwanda and its military have long-been suspected of backing several militias entrenched in the eastern Congo, such as the now defeated M23, which like all militias in the region, financed its war effort by smuggling conflict minerals to world markets.
What has often perplexed many Congolese activists is that the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame has always been the US’s strongest regional ally. Kagame, who came to power after his own militia ended the haunting 1994 Rwandan genocide, once trained with US special forces at Fort Leavenworth.
“These proxy militias within the country are a major barrier to peace,” says Carney of Friends of the Congo. “When pressure [from US, Sweden, Netherlands] is applied to either or both of these nations we see an appreciable and noticeable difference on the ground.”
As for how a traceability effort in the eastern Congo actually works, it begins with artisanal miners at an NGO certified mine by both the Enough Project and the DRC government. The miners “bag and tag” their minerals in a large and clear plastic bag with an all-important tag that specifically states the contents are “conflict free.” The bag with the tag is subsequently sold onto the world market, and eventually shipped to a smelter to be refined and sold again to manufactures.
Once the certified bagged and tagged minerals arrive at a smelter, in China for example, they are considered “downstream” on the supply chain by the likes of Apple and Intel. Here, these personal consumer electronics companies have established a last wall of traceability at the smelters themselves. This program is run by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, or EICC, a non-profit with over 100 members, including Microsoft, IBM, Sony, Motorola, along with Apple and Intel.
“We have seen a growth in compliance smelters that is tremendous,” says Michael Rohwer, program director for the EICC. “The number of compliant smelters has doubled since the end of 2013 to the end of 2014. It’s been an exciting experience.” He adds, “We have roughly 80 to 85 percent of the total tantalum supply chain validated as conflict free.”
Fahey has concerns about these numbers. His team of UN investigators suspects some militias may be circumventing the bag and tag program after they discovered that the copy-cat or fake duplicates of the all-important tag were circulating through the eastern Congo.
“These tags are for sale in the Congo and Rwanda,” says Fahey.
Rohwer says there are protocols in place to prevent fraudulent tags from reaching certified smelters. “If tags are used with numbers which have not been issued [by traceability programs], or if people create their own tags with the same numbers, they are highlighted as invalid or as duplicates at the point they entered the supply chain and investigated.”
Both Carney and Fahey say lasting change will only come if the on-the-ground issues in the eastern Congo are fully addressed. They call for implementing Dodd-Frank in phases with clear benchmarks; provide assistance to affected mining communities, especially to those miners who can prove they lost reliable sources of income to any de facto ban on Congolese minerals; and turn traceability programs into job programs.
“Why not build manufacturing and smelter plants within the Congo where everything is right there?” asks Carney. “Then you don’t have to worry about tracing minerals across the world.”
The DRC is ranked 186 out of 187 countries in the United Nation’s 2013 “Human Development Report,” which measures life expectancy and income. Smelters will bring needed investment and jobs to one of the poorest nations on earth, Carney says. He has tried to sell the Congo-based smelter idea to the global north. “But no one has responded.”
John Lasker is a journalist from Columbus, Ohio
Previous articles by John Lasker for Toward Freedom on resource wars in Africa: