Why You Should Care About More Than Just “Conflict Minerals” in the Congo

Chances are, the consumer electronic product in which you are reading this blog post can trace some of its key parts to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And chances are, you already know that.  

Starting around the early 2000s, a global human rights advocacy movement was mobilized to raise awareness of how certain raw materials in electronics came from mines controlled by armed groups in eastern Congo. In the international press, the advocacy message often made a direct link between the cell phone in your hand and violent atrocities in the DRC. 

The movement eventually led to the inclusion of section 1502 in the United States’ Dodd-Frank Act. Since then, several academics (including Séverine Autesserre and Jason Stearns) and two independent filmmakers (Seth Chase and Ben Radley) have added much needed nuance and complexity to the conversation on conflict minerals and the effects on the ground of section 1502.

But human rights violations committed by armed groups are only part of the story. For your cell phone to be truly ethical, at least in terms of DRC’s minerals, it is not just the famous tech companies that actually sell you your phone that need to be held accountable. International mining companies themselves are also responsible for the role they play in allowing grave human rights violations to be committed; and usually outside the context of armed conflict.

Human Rights Abuses in the Mining of Cobalt

Cobalt is a key component in the rechargeable batteries needed to power portable electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, smart phones, and electric cars. Demand for cobalt is expected to rise as demand for these products continues to rise. In the DRC, about 20% of the country’s cobalt exports come from artisanal miners.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International documented serious human rights violations in DRC’s cobalt mines; including lethal health hazards, lack of government protection, illegal taxation of miners by state officials, and child labor. There are avoidable health risks to miners from exposure to cobalt dust without adequate protection, including lung disease and death. The risk of being killed in an accident underground is high due to the lack of safety regulation. And children are given physically demanding tasks and must work up to 12 hours a day.

Yet despite all this, mining experts have recently reported that they anticipate cobalt production in DRC will rise an annual average of 4.6% between now and 2020.

So why hasn’t the government done more?

The government began a process of revising the mining code in 2012, involving both civil society and industry participants. The draft revision provides stronger protections for artisanal miners and would make it illegal to mine or sell minerals from a site where human rights violations have been reported in writing “by a competent authority.” But the revision was abandoned back in February, at least in part due to industry pressure. But why would mining companies oppose the revision, and why didn’t the government insist on moving forward anyway?

Part of the answer is that the revised regulations would cost money to implement, and the government suggested the mining industry should foot some of the bill.

Currently, artisanal mining can only take place in designated Artisanal Mining Zones (AMZs) to be regulated and protected by the Service d’Assistance et d’Encadrement du Small Scale Mining (SAESSCAM). But there aren’t enough of them, so much artisanal mining takes place in unauthorized areas without any government oversight. According to the Amnesty report, the head of SAESSCAM in Katanga said that allocating more AMZs would take resources that the agency simply does not have.

Now you would think that producing more than half of what the world consumes of something would put you in a pretty strong position vis-à-vis those who want access to it. But in DR Congo, which has 47% of the world’s cobalt reserves and supplies about 51% of what the world consumes, it seems mining companies hold a lot of sway over the government.

Last year a 5% increase in profit taxes on mining companies was added to the mining code revision, presumably to help pay for better regulation. The tax increase was dropped for fear it would drive investors away. However, this logic appears to have been promoted only by the mining industry itself, with a mining lobby group opposing the revisions and a company CEO warning that the changes “risked destroying the industry in Congo,” according to Mining.com.

A complicating factor is the lack of transparency around deals struck between foreign mining companies and the Congolese government, many of which are discussed and referenced in a report released last month by the Enough Project. Transnational corporations are not the only ones with something to gain from mining, usually (and historically) to the detriment of Congolese people themselves. Congolese state-owned companies and politicians, and regional deal-brokers and entrepreneurs, also profit from mineral exploitation.

In the last few weeks, international activists have begun pressuring the government to put the Mining Code revision back on the table. So the battle for ethical electronics has not yet been won, and it won’t be until broader systemic change occurs.