Is the news about Congo’s conflict minerals good? – by Sarah Von Billerbeck (Washington Post – June 18, 2014)

On June 10, the Enough Project published a report claiming that 67 percent of tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3T) mines in eastern Congo are now free of armed actors and declaring the minerals mined there ‘conflict-free’ (compared with a 2010 U.N. Group of Experts report asserting that ‘almost every mineral deposit’ in the area was controlled by military groups).

The document came close on the heels of a June 2 deadline for U.S. firms to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the provenance of minerals used in their products and to certify that they do not contain ‘conflict minerals’ from the Democratic Republic of Congo or its neighbors. The BBC responded to the Enough Project’s report, calling it ‘rare good news’ from the DRC and lauding it as proof that consumer-led lobbying efforts in wealthy countries can have real effects on under-developed countries.

However, the situation is not as rosy as such reactions may suggest. First, describing the mines as ‘conflict-free’ suggests that the absence of armed groups and Congolese military from mines means that miners no longer work under duress and are not forced to pay illegal ‘taxes’ at the mine site that can in turn fuel militia activity. Yet the absence of armed individuals does not mean that miners are not working under forced or inhumane conditions, that they are not being extorted, or that non-state actors and individuals holding political office are not benefiting illegally from mining in the region.

Indeed, a variety of actors are involved in Congo’s mineral industry, including politicians, Congolese and foreign entrepreneurs and investors, Congolese mining companies, and multinational firms, and eliminating extortion by armed groups and the military will not necessarily affect illegal profits to others, who may subsequently fund armed activity. While the route may be more circuitous, the result is the same.

Indeed, the report concedes that some armed actors have simply resorted to using proxies to extort money from miners, often friends or family members. The absence of armed groups and Congolese military in the mines themselves thus does not mean that they have disappeared entirely from the mineral trade or that minerals are not indirectly financing armed activity.

In addition, extortion does not just occur in mines, but also along roads, at checkpoints, with negotiants, and at comptoirs in nearby towns and provincial capitals where minerals are bought, sold and smuggled. Extortion may thus continue to occur at other points along the supply chain, and indeed, the report notes that armed actors are still present along many key transport routes.

Third, the report remains vague on who does control the mines in the absence of armed actors. In a couple of instances, it notes that mines previously controlled by warlords or military actors are now subject to ownership negotiations between the government, large multinational companies, and community groups. Such negotiations do not, however, mean that equitable solutions are being found.

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