About $24 trillion worth of gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten are estimated to be in Congo’s eastern hills. They are dug from the fertile, brown mud there through exploitation: Kilos upon kilos of rocks and water are lifted and filtered each day for a few dollars per laborer. Minerals are smuggled, too, and help to line the pockets of the security guards, militias, and Congolese soldiers who lord over mining sites, wielding weapons and perpetrating sexualized violence against women. By extension, the advocacy message goes, the “conflict minerals” from Congo that wind up in devices like iPhones cause rape. U.S. electronics and other expensive, shiny things fuel war. Individuals and companies must not buy dirty minerals, because exposing and cleaning up supply chains will reduce the stranglehold armed groups have on Congo’s mines.
These ideas helped shape a tiny section of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2010, called Section 1502. This section requires companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose whether they are receiving tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold from Congo, and whether those minerals are connected to sites of conflict, which is determined through an expensive certification process on a mine-by-mine basis by something known as the Regional Certification Mechanism of the intergovernmental International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. Companies had to file their first disclosures in May 2014.
But declaring products “conflict-free,” as the label is known, is not so simple, many critics say, and the message that Congo’s minerals cause rape and other horrors is not exactly true.
While the concept of conflict minerals is convenient for people far from Africa, it is inducing incredible hardship for the miners and their families.
At the beginning of September, 70 academics, researchers, journalists, and advocates published a blistering open letter criticizing Dodd-Frank and its backers, asserting that the groups and activists pushing to stop the trade of conflict minerals risk “contributing to, rather than alleviating, the very conflicts they set out to address.” Their campaign “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between minerals and conflict” in Congo, the signatories said. (Some critics have gone further still, charging that the advocates who sculpted and pushed Dodd-Frank have even misrepresented, in the name of what they see as a greater good, the situation on the ground in Congo.) Two months later, on Nov. 30, the Washington Post published a long investigative feature describing how Dodd-Frank “set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of miners and their families deeper into poverty.”
Ben Radley, a signatory of the September letter and an independent researcher who is making a documentary about Dodd-Frank’s impact in Congo, summed his concerns up in an interview:
While the concept of conflict minerals is convenient for people far from Africa, it is inducing incredible hardship for the miners and their families. “Congolese miners,” he said, “are paying to ease the consciences of Western consumers.”
At the root of this dilemma is a series of loudly propagated myths about what is going on in Congo’s mines, how conflict is affecting the country, and how exactly the supply chain that feeds minerals into the global market is regulated.
It is high time these myths were dispelled.