Are Conflict Mineral Laws Doing More Harm Than Good In The Congo?

Wikipedia/CC BY 3.0

As we deal with the problem of conflict minerals -- minerals mined in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the funds of which go toward ever more fighting and killing -- we often call for more stringent laws. However, an article from The Register points out that these laws don't seem to be helping the Congolese.

The strong words come from Tim Worstall, who writes, "So the tantalum for the capacitors in our electronics comes from columbo-tantalite, which is coltan, which comes from militias in the Congo, so we should have a law making sure that no tantalum for our electronics comes from militias in the Congo. Fine, we do have that now, it's part of Dodd Frank, and how's it working out? Not well actually, for several reasons, the most obvious one being that passing a law with good intentions doesn't necessarily lead to good outcomes."

If you aren't familiar with conflict minerals, you'll want to check out this slideshow, with images depicting the conditions of mining camps and more information from The Enough Project about conflict mineral mining. A significant problem with keeping conflict minerals out of electronics is that the minerals are practically impossible to trace once they get far enough in the supply chain, so even if electronics manufacturers are saying they have an eye on their supply chains and refuse to buy conflict minerals, they may not even know that they're purchasing them. It's a serious issue to be worked out, since these conflict minerals fuel wars that are guilty of genocide and mass rape as a weapon of war.

And what's worse, the laws that actually are in place may not be doing much of anything to help.

Worstall notes that as part of Dodd Frank in the US, companies have to disclose if they use certain minerals known to come from conflict zones, and describe their process for checking their supply chain. But, as he states, "All well and good we might say but, umm, what are the accepted methods of proving that?... Unfortunately, the general answer to that question is “Fucked if I know” and further, that's the answer from everyone."

Worstall is not off base. Apple recently came under the microscope for an issue with conflict minerals potentially in their products, and their response was essentially, we don't support it but we have no way of knowing. There's more to that statement than just a lack of knowing the source of materials by the company -- there's also a lack of knowing how much is coming out of conflict zones in the first place. As Worstall points out, "Mineral exports from the region are down 90 per cent by some estimates, more by others, and no one, no one at all ever thought that more than a few per cent was being controlled by militias."

So we have a two-fold problem -- one is that we have to track conflict minerals from the source to know how to format laws that eliminate the market for them, and two is we have to know that laws are working and not causing more harm than good.

Worstall writes, "I've been told of one tribally owned operation that has export licences from the Congo, can transport across Tanzania, can show where they mined, to whom they paid taxes (no militias involved) and they simply cannot find a buyer for their 50 tonnes of tantalite. At a $3m or $4m value, that's a lot of money being withheld from poor people just because the do-gooders didn't think about the paperwork before they went whining to the politicians. I've similarly been told that 20,000 miners are now idle, with the knock on effects to the roughly 100,000 people in their extended families, as a result of, no, not just this new law, but of the gross incompetence and even ignorance of real world effects of the law of those who shouted most loudly for its passing."

Conflict minerals are a big, hairy problem, and there are no easy solutions. Some, like Worstall, deeply disagree with the strategies employed by groups like The Enough Project, which in turn is only trying to save lives.

Where the real solution lies is still to be determined.

Tags: Activism | Electronics | Gadgets | Mining