Focus on the Conflict, Not the Minerals

*This post first appeared on STAND’s blog in November

When one asks what can be done to help stop the conflict in the DR Congo, the deadliest conflict since World War II, a common answer is to stop the purchase of conflict minerals. Advocacy groups such as The Enough Project and Global Witness have rallied around this potential solution, and it is not hard to see why. Despite its massive human costs, the DRC struggled for media attention for years. The DRC has massive reserves of gold, cobalt, tin, tungsten, and tantalum– a key component of consumer electronics- and both rebel groups and the Congolese army have profited from these resources.

Advocacy groups began publicizing the link between normal products such as laptops and cell phones to the devastating violence in the DRC and this narrative was able to bring far more attention than the conflict had previously received. This pressure culminated in the 2010 passage of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which mandated that companies track their supply chains from the DRC and surrounding countries and report whether they contain minerals that profit armed groups. Advocacy groups continue to push for compliance with Dodd-Frank and further efforts to restrict conflict minerals. While the conflict minerals approach has brought attention and legislative action on the DRC, this would only constitute progress if it had lead to increased peace and stability in the DRC, and it has not. The logic underlying conflict minerals advocacy does not reflect the realities of the conflict, and stopping the purchase of conflict minerals from the DRC will be at best ineffective and at worst cause significant damage.

Tracking whether conflict minerals enter a company’s supply chain, the central premise of Dodd-Frank 1502, is extremely difficult. In the eastern DRC, where the conflict is concentrated, roads are extremely poor and it is therefore very difficult to visit mines for the tracking process. Smuggling is very common and it is easy to bribe civil servants who receive small salaries, making it difficult to know where minerals really came from. The implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 in one stage also made it difficult to develop more effective processes. In September, the US Commerce Department confirmed that conflict minerals were nearly impossible to track. Companies therefore find it extremely difficult to know whether or not they are buying conflict minerals. Rather than trying to determine whether they are buying clean Congolese minerals or Congolese conflict minerals, the safest method for companies has been to not buy Congolese minerals altogether. For example, in April 2011, the month of the deadline for implementing Dodd-Frank 1502, sales of tin in North Kivu fell 90%. Mining is one of the largest industries in the DRC, and eight to ten million people rely on mining for a living. Dodd-Frank 1502 has forced as many as two million miners out of work as companies pulled out of an already extremely poor economy. It is important to note that miners forced out of work often have no savings or safety net to fall back on, and starvation and easily preventable diseases can become very real threats.

The massive blow to the Congolese economy could be justified as a necessary step towards ending the conflict, but this is not the case. Undoubtedly armed groups control some mines and profit from minerals, but minerals did not cause the conflict and stopping their purchase will not end it. Local conflicts over land, conflicts of identity and citizenship, and an extremely weak state make up the root causes of the conflict. Recently defeated M23, which was the largest rebel group in the DRC at the time, did not try to control mines and many leaders even left mining areas to join the group. According to Christoph Vogel, the only report to find that Dodd-Frank 1502 contributed to the defeat of M23 was commissioned by the Enough Project, one of the main advocates of the legislation. Conflict minerals are only one of the ways that rebel groups derive profits; they also operate taxation schemes, sell palm oil and cannabis, and are funded by outside patrons. In any case, without funds rebel groups would still have widespread access to weapons in a region that has seen conflict for decades.

The evidence since the implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 suggests that conflict mineral efforts have not stemmed the violence. With reduced employment in the mining sector armed groups are one of the only ways to gain a living, and some recent recruits to rebel groups cite the loss of mining jobs as reasons for joining. Also, there is little evidence to suggest that a loss of mineral profits have caused any armed groups to disband. In fact, since the 2010 passage of Dodd-Frank 1502 fatalities from conflict have increased slightly and conflict has increased in mining areas. While this does not prove that the legislation caused the increased violence, it does show that efforts of conflict mineral advocates have not had the intended effects.

In a best case scenario of conflict minerals legislation, armed groups would lose some funding but still continue to fight. That perfect legislation has not been written, and instead there have been huge negative effects on the Congolese economy while doing little to stop the conflict. Opposition to conflict minerals advocacy does not mean that we should not hold companies responsible for their actions or that we should pay any less attention to the DRC. It only means that our priority is the well-being of the Congolese people, and conflict minerals advocacy has not helped it.

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