A young miner extracts coltan from a valley in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Getty Images)

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Is There Even Such a Thing as Conflict-Free Minerals?

Tracing the insides of our electronics to the war-ravaged areas where they were mined turned out to be more difficult than expected.
Sep 4, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Tom Clynes is the author of The Boy Who Played With Fusion and a regular contributor to Popular Science and National Geographic.

Tantalum is a mineral essential to virtually every consumer electronics item we buy—an estimated 70 percent of the world’s tantalum is used for TVs, cell phones, laptops, and the like. But before the 40 milligrams of it that goes into every iPhone gets to the Apple Store, it follows a long and circuitous route from countries such as Brazil, China, and Australia and the conflict-ravaged corners of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The journey from DRC begins in one of the hundreds of mines in the country’s far east, where civil and international war has claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives since 1996, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. War crimes are legion on all sides as armed groups fight to control trade in four highly prized “conflict minerals”—gold and the ores that yield tin, tantalum, and tungsten (the so-called 3Ts). Conditions vary in the mines, but working conditions are typically abysmal. Miners who dig for the tar-like mineral called columbite-tantalite, or coltan (from which tantalum is extracted), earn an average of $1 to $5 per day. Human rights organizations have documented forced labor in mines that are controlled by militias, and World Bank investigators have found that children as young as 10 make up much of the workforce.

From the mines, coltan ore is transported—in trucks or on porters’ backs—to one of two major cities in the region, Bukavu or Goma. Trading houses called maisons d’achat sort and process the ore and sell it to exporters, who then resell it to buyers in the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Although some is legally exported, much is smuggled across DRC’s porous borders under the supervision of profiteering Congolese military officials or other armed groups.

From there, the ore makes its way to metals processors, mostly in Asia, Europe, or North America. The refining process mixes ore from the conflict zones of DRC with supplies from all over the globe. Once refined into metal, the tantalum is used to make capacitors (which provide energy to circuit boards) in products sold by companies such as Apple, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, and Nintendo, as well as in medical implants and laboratory equipment.

The journey of conflict minerals from the Congo. (Video animation: Enough Project/YouTube)

The ground beneath the DRC holds about 80 percent of the world’s coltan. Electronics brands understand that few of their customers are comfortable with the idea that their purchases finance violence, forced labor, rape, and other atrocities that have defined the conflict. Under pressure from activists, policy makers, investors, and students—the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative now counts more than 175 colleges—companies have responded with well-publicized campaigns to purge conflict minerals from their supply chains. This pressure has had a significant impact; companies including Intel, Motorola Solutions, and Apple credit activist movements as key motivators for their efforts to develop fully conflict-free products.

For decades, it has been impossible to distinguish processed tantalum that originated in DRC from other sources. The Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative and other endeavors aim to change that, and to ensure that your next cell phone doesn’t help finance violence and environmental destruction in one of the world’s most troubled regions.

But some activists and researchers contend that attempts to produce conflict-free products have so far done more to assuage the guilt of companies and their customers than to improve the lives of Congolese people. “It’s to the credit of Intel and HP that they are willing to participate in a process that they believe will someday result in conflict-free minerals,” said Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo, a human rights NGO. “But currently there’s no such thing as conflict-free coltan. The industry’s conflict-free sourcing schemes are extremely limited. The way to get conflict-free coltan is to end the conflict.”

Soldiers watch over prospectors searching for valuable minerals near the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and theCentral African Republic. (Photo: Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

The vast patchwork of landscapes that make up DRC have long served as pillaging grounds for those seeking to exploit the region’s plentiful natural resources. Today, what has often been referred to as DRC’s “resource curse” is most visible in the country’s far east, where armed groups have fought for decades to control trade in highly prized minerals. Eastern DRC’s current instability began with the Rwandan killing of perhaps as many as 1 million ethnic Tutsi by the Hutu group in the mid-1990s. After expatriate Tutsi fighters gained control in Rwanda, more than a million Hutu fled to what was then called Zaire, fearing retaliation. Tutsi leader Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda, accused Zaire’s president of sheltering the killers and invaded. Rwandan troops joined up with troops under Laurent Kabila, who had been leading a rebel movement in the region since the 1970s, and marched west to the capital, overthrowing Mobutu Sese Seko and installing Kabila in his place. Kabila gave the nation its new name, and his son today rules DRC, though his power is extremely limited in the war-torn, anarchic eastern part of the country. For much of the last two decades the region has been terrorized by militia groups so numerous that it’s difficult for even experts to keep track of them.

The period of conflict has coincided with the global rise of the mobile phone from rich man’s toy to everyman’s tool and a resulting rise in demand for coltan. Though minerals are far from the only source of contention, militias and the Congolese military have vied for control over the minerals trade to finance operations and fatten leaders’ bank accounts. In response, the U.S. Congress required that manufacturers audit their supply chains and report conflict minerals usage when it passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010.

We don’t have a perfect system, but we just didn’t want to wait. These efforts are moving the needle.

Carolyn Duran, conflict minerals program manager, Intel

Before the ink on President Barack Obama’s signature on the new law was dry, companies began to run from Congolese coltan. Kabila abruptly banned all mining in the eastern provinces, to rid the area of what he called the “mafia" involved in the mining industry. These actions had the unintended effect of devastating communities that depended on 3T mining and forcing many miners to turn to the black market to support their families.

Moreover, the new U.S. law and Kabila’s ban shifted the battles elsewhere, according to an analysis of geo-referenced data by Dominic Parker, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “These findings are a cautionary tale about the possible unintended consequences of boycotting natural resources from war-torn regions,” said Parker.

Recognizing that "conflict-free" should not mean "Congo-free," the electronics industry and its suppliers have since turned their efforts to auditing the supply chains that begin with small-scale miners. Intel and other companies have joined the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative, which focuses on monitoring processors that collect and refine ore coming in from mines.

“We work with targeted processors and encourage and help them go into a third-party auditing system, which monitors the amount of ore coming in and out of the operation and looks at the paper trail from mines and recyclers,” said Carolyn Duran, Intel’s conflict minerals program manager.

That there are no tantalum refiners in the DRC complicates efforts to trace coltan and other ores across borders and back to their mines of origin. A more comprehensive (but lightly implemented) system uses a bagging-and-tagging certification scheme: Bags of ore from mines designated as conflict-free are identified with green tags and collected by processors as part of the verification process.

Young people pan for minerals in a stream near the border of DRC and CAR. (Photo: Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

But a report from the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit based in New York, found that bag-and-tag may create as many problems as it solves. It argues that such systems put local producers at the mercy of buyer monopolies and may even strengthen the region’s illegal market in minerals—because producers need to either sell at prices controlled by buyer monopolies or go around the process by selling on the black market. In some cases, traceability campaigns may be playing into the hands of the very criminal and rebel networks they were attempting to starve of revenue.

To address such difficulties, Solutions for Hope (set up by the NGO Resolve and financed by Motorola) is attempting to construct a “closed pipe” supply chain. “The goal is to include the whole buying chain: the mine, the smelter, component makers, and manufacturers,” said Jennifer Peyser, a senior mediator at Resolve. The program encourages direct sourcing from conflict-free sites, with the goal of creating a transparent supply chain.

Coltan from the rich deposits of North Kivu, Democratic Republic
of the Congo. (Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Getty Images)

Though these attempts to create a responsible supply of tantalum are far from perfect, there are signs that they may be having a positive effect. A recent report from the International Peace Information Service finds that both security and socioeconomic indicators have gradually improved in closely monitored mining areas since around 2007. The amount of money flowing to armed groups through the trade of three of the four conflict minerals (gold being the exception) has decreased significantly. The influence of Rwandan-backed armed groups in the eastern DRC has waned. And according to IPIS, only about a quarter of the 3T miners at sites surveyed in eastern DRC are working under the control of soldiers or militias.

That’s progress, but eastern DRC is hardly a peaceful place. The vast majority of mining sites are outside the bagging-and-tagging system, and many Congolese mining communities in isolated areas live with the daily threat of violence or intimidation from armed groups. Consumers still have no guarantee that their electronics purchases don't constitute a cash conduit from their wallets to Congolese warlords and generals, making it important that those who care about such things support recycling efforts, buy used, and make their electronics purchases last.

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One glaring gap in the attempts to sanitize the Congolese mining industry is the lack of participation of the Congolese people—particularly women—in decision making and solution seeking. This may be behind the international community’s deeper failure to recognize that the chaos in eastern DRC is far more complicated than a clash over minerals. A report by the Pole Institute posits that what would otherwise be laudable efforts by outsiders to render the minerals of the DRC conflict-free are likely doomed unless they accompany the reestablishment of a functioning Congolese state. Even if supply-chain due-diligence processes operated optimally, in other words, the DRC conflict wouldn’t disappear.

In a recent open letter, 70 scholars and other experts on the region argued that the conflict-free-minerals movement risks exacerbating, rather than easing, the conflicts it set out to address. They challenge the pervasive but one-dimensional belief that violence in DRC and other poorly governed countries is driven by international demand for their natural resources.

As the country enters a critical period in the run-up to elections next year, Carney and other activists insist that international companies should redirect their considerable influence to diplomacy and development that will lead to legitimate, democratic, and working governance in DRC.

“It’s not just about mines and money,” said Carney. “You have land disputes, citizenship issues, political instability, foreign armies, local people who’ve taken up arms to defend themselves. Unless you have a Congolese state that exercises authority in the interests of the Congolese people, no amount of auditing or regulations will make much of a difference.”

“We’re all trying to learn together,” said Intel’s Duran. Companies are doing what they can within their sphere of influence. “It’s early in the process, and we don’t have a perfect system, but we just didn’t want to wait. I hear people on the ground saying that at least these efforts are moving the needle. When money starts and stops flowing, people start to listen.”