Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for all its problems, is immensely rich in ore. Many thousands of artisanal miners dig up gold, diamonds, tin and—most importantly—coltan, a raw material that finds its way into our phones and laptops.
But now a group of 70 experts has published an open letter claiming that “the conflict minerals campaign fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between minerals and conflict in the eastern DRC.”
Mining and trading these ores is big business. In a region where armed groups abound, millions of dollars from the mineral trade ends up in the pockets of rebel groups. Our demand for technology pays for the weapons and supplies the rebels use to commit terrible acts of violence.
But the experts’ letter goes on to claim that efforts to end the trade have done little to improve the situation in Congo—and may actually have done more harm than good. Companies such as Apple and Intel have pulled out of Congo, leaving thousands of miners in economic limbo.
In recent years, activists opposed to conflict minerals have scored some major victories. In one particularly impressive success in 2010, they inserted language in the U.S. Dodd-Frank bank reform law requiring American companies to try to rid themselves of Congolese conflict minerals.
The European Union is working on its own—probably voluntary—guidelines, while the OECD and the United Nations have also published recommendations aimed at cutting off Congo’s ore trade.
But while some armed groups depend on the mineral trade, there are other ways for Congolese fighters to pay the bills. There’s charcoal, marijuana, even extortion. Some of the most powerful militias aren’t involved in mining at all.
“There is a very one-sided discourse,” Christoph Vogel, a political analyst and one of the initiators of the open letter, tells War is Boring. In contrast to what advocacy groups imply, the scientific consensus is that mining is neither the cause of conflict in Congo nor necessary to keep the fighting going, Vogel argues.
The letter also claims that as many as 10 million people depend on artisanal mining for their livelihoods. There are government and industry initiatives encouraging conflict-free mines. But these efforts have met with little success so far—largely owing to pervasive insecurity, corruption and a lack of government will and capacity in Congo itself.
As a result, the conflict minerals campaign has had “perverse impacts,” the experts say.
“Some former miners have returned to subsistence agriculture,” the letter states. “But persisting insecurity levels leave them in abject poverty facing dire living conditions, in fear of missing harvests due to displacement. Others have been prompted to join militias as a means to quick cash in the absence of other opportunities.”
Anti-ore campaigners ignore these complexities, Vogel says. “They look for easy explanations.”
The campaigners disagree. Michael Reckordt, from the German advocacy organization PowerShift, says that Vogel and the other experts are “putting a one-sided focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the (alleged) shortcomings of the Dodd-Frank Act.”
Reckordt says he fears that the letter will play into the hand of industry lobbying groups, who might cite it in their arguments against regulation.
But Vogel freely admits that the letter is strictly about the situation in Congo, and is not intended to influence the debate over regulation in the E.U. “It is about the responsibility towards local producers,” he says.
Vogel and his colleagues stress that Congo is complex. There are conflicts over land, ethnicity and politics, all “in the context of a militarized economy,” the letter argues.
Conflict minerals contribute to the violence, but they’re also vital to the Congolese people’s survival. The result, according to the letter, is that the ore trade “holds as much potential to help steer the region away from conflict as it does to contribute towards it.”