One Step Forward for Conflict Minerals, but What Impact on Congo?

The issue of conflict minerals is finally center stage, as reported two weeks ago on Greener Computing, thanks to a provision in the new Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that requires U.S. manufacturers to demonstrate that their sourcing practices aren't contributing to human rights atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The issue is also news on the other side of the pond, where human rights NGO Global Witness is suing the U.K. government, claiming it "turns a blind eye" to British firms who trade in "lucrative" Congolese conflict minerals.

The DRC has tremendous mineral wealth, and at issue are columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite, wolframite (and gold) -- a number of minerals with tongue-twisting names found in a wide range of industrial and consumer products, including many of our beloved high-tech electronics.

While the term "conflict minerals" may not be top of mind when we're texting OMG to our BFFs, the magic of all these gadgets is possible thanks in large part to tin, used to solder electronic components together; tungsten, used in light-bulb filaments and to make cell phones vibrate; and metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder capable of holding an electrical charge.

The DRC is hardly the world's largest producer of any of these elements, but it has nonetheless become the poster child for "conflict minerals." Although the country's mineral wealth should be fueling social and economic development, it has instead fueled years of conflict and left a wake of misery for much of this decade. Since the late 1990s when the current conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have died and the eastern Congo has earned the unfortunate label of "rape capital of the world."

Most of the deaths are actually because of malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition, all non-violent causes and normally preventable. As the U.N reported as long ago as 2003, "The flow of arms, exploitation and the continuation of the conflict are inextricably linked."

Conflict aside, from the first time I saw images of people mining coltan (really, digging in the mud with whatever tools available) I've long wondered when consumers would finally make a connection between their purchasing decisions and the suffering of people in the DRC. Artisanal miners, even the ones not working as forced labor, toil in awful conditions.

In addition to the human suffering, the extraction of coltan and other industrial minerals also causes environmental damage and habitat destruction. However, this type of artisanal mining is critical to an economy where there are few alternatives. Workers who produce 1kg of coltan a day may earn $10 to $50 a week, a good wage by Congolese standards.

While the Dodd-Frank bill doesn't set out to ban mineral imports from the DRC, legitimate operators in the region fear this outcome. As John Kanyoni, head of the North Kivu exporters association, told the tin mining association ITRI: "By asking all the manufacturers to track every piece of metal in every single item they make, it is just telling them don't buy from DRC and adjoining countries -- which is an embargo de facto. The consequence of the U.S. regulations will be that thousands of Congolese will be jobless and might most probably be joining the armed groups."