23 March, 2010

Minerals of blood in our computers and cell phones?

High-tech is linked to war and brutality not only through the arms industry. Computers, cellphones, and other electronic equipment can be part of a shocking connection of highly advanced technology with human suffering, forced labor and unending war. Does it sound too preposterous?

Sergio Abranches

Well just take a look at the 2009 report “Faced with a gun, what can you do? War and the militarisation of mining in eastern Congo” by Global Witness. It tells us about the “conflict minerals” or “blood minerals” that are widely used by high-tech electronic industries. Raw-material in their supply-chain could have been sourced from many parts of the provinces of North and South Kivu, where armed groups and the Congolese national army control the trade in cassiterite (tin ore), gold, columbite-tantalite (coltan), wolframite (a source of tungsten) and other minerals. The report documents a billionaire tale of brutality, tyranny, and corruption. Not too dissimilar from the story most of us came to know from the movie “Blood Diamond”, directed by Edward Zwick, with Leonardo Di Caprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connely or from National Geographic’s documentary Blood Diamond (Diamond of War).

In their broader struggle to seize economic, political and military power, all the main warring parties have carried out the most horrific human rights abuses, including widespread killings of unarmed civilians, rape, torture and looting, recruitment of child soldiers to fight in their ranks, and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The lure of eastern Congo’s mineral riches is one of the factors spurring them on. By the time these minerals reach their ultimate destinations – the international markets in Europe, Asia, North America and elsewhere – their origin, and the suffering caused by this trade, has long been forgotten.

These minerals of war end up into advanced products of major global companies, reports Global Witness:

Several of the main comptoirs – trading houses based in Goma and Bukavu – buy, sell and export minerals produced by or benefiting the warring parties. They include Groupe Olive, Muyeye, MDM, Panju and others. The fact that these comptoirs are officially licensed and registered with the Congolese government acts as a cover for laundering minerals which are fuelling the conflict. These comptoirs’ customers include European and Asian companies, such as the Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation (THA ISARCO), the world’s fifth-largest tin-producing company, owned by British metals giant Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC); British company Afrimex; and several Belgian companies such as Trademet and Traxys. These companies sell the minerals on to a range of processing and manufacturing companies, including firms in the electronics industry. Economic actors are turning a blind eye to the impact of their trade. They continue to plead ignorance as to the origin of their supplies and hide behind a multitude of other excuses for failing to implement practices which would exclude from their supply chain minerals which are fueling the armed conflict.

The report says that cassiterite (tin ore) is the most important blood mineral in terms of quantity and price. It has many uses as a component in the production of solders, tin plating and alloys. Downstream users are the electronics and tin can industries. Electronic solders alone accounted for over 44% of all refined tin in 2007. In 2007 and 2008 the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo accounted for about 5% of global tin ore production.

The trading houses – comptoirs – are, according to Global Witness, a critical part of this chain of supply and export of minerals, in a setting of violence, exploitation, environmental and human degradation.

“We all end up buying minerals which, in some way, have been produced illegally. You can’t just ask us to stop. We have no alternatives other than closing,” a representative of one to the comptoirs told Global Witness.

Global Witness has written to about 200 companies all over the world inquiring about their trade practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Some of the companies which replied to Global Witness stated that they were committed to upholding and improving due diligence policies. However, the policies or internal codes of conduct they refer to are fairly general and do not include specific safeguards against the mineral trade fueling armed conflict.

Global Witness’s view at the time of the report is that the industry lacked a coherent plan to address the conflict dimension of the mineral trade.

The industry has adopted some actions to address the problem, coordinated by its trade association, the International Tin Research Institute – ITRI. The Institute claims that “Phase  1”, implemented in July 2009, was “a comprehensive due diligence plan for tin minerals exported from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).” It is now announcing “Phase 2” of its policy called ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative, iTSCi.

ITRI says that iTSCi represents “the first practical field trial designed to address concerns over ‘conflict minerals’ from that region and has required significant commitment and funding, around US$600k, to be put in place in order to go ahead.”

Phase 2 consists of “a pilot trial which will begin to track minerals and provide verifiable provenance information from individual mine sites in eastern DRC; something that has not been possible up to now.”

This initiative has the support of an impressive number of well-know downstream users of tin and tantalum in the electronics sector, such as Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Nokia Siemens Networks, Philips, RIM, Sony, Telefonica, Western Digital and Xerox.

Kay Nimmo, ITRI’s Manager of Sustainability and Regulatory Affairs says that the industry can now “move ahead with this next step in the iTSCi project” which “really demonstrates the commitment of the tin, and now also the tantalum sector, to find a solution to this difficult issue.”

It is a welcome move, but it still seems to be too weak a response to such a brutal problem. Global Witness acknowledges that many mining and electronic companies have clear policies regarding the sustainability of their supply-chain, but due diligence procedures fall short of adequately addressing the problem of the warring parties’ control of a major share of mineral supplies.

A Group of Experts nominated by the UN in 2004 to recommend actions regarding conflict minerals, issued a report in 2008, urging UN member states to “take appropriate measures to ensure that exporters and consumers of Congolese mineral products under their jurisdiction conduct due diligence on their suppliers and not accept verbal assurances from buyers regarding the origin of their product”.

ITRI’s plan to track minerals and provide verifiable provenance information could be an important instrument for origin certification in the supply-chain. Similar cases of illegal goods entering the production process of large, competitive companies show that only the giant corporate downstream users have the power to enforce rules aiming at cleaning the supply-chain.

The situation doesn’t seem to have improved much since Global Witness issued its report and ITRI implemented Phase 1 of its project. Annie Dunnebacke, just back from a month in eastern DRC, reports that:

For more than a decade now, the country’s mineral wealth has provided an incentive and a cash base for the conflict to continue. Unless the government and international donors implement a comprehensive strategy which tackles once and for all the economic drivers of this conflict, the local population will continue to suffer and the country’s future will continue to be blighted.

Emilie Serralta, also part of Global Witness’ team just back from the Congo, adds that the

capacity of the former rebels to siphon off revenue from the mines means they could afford to re-arm if they decide peace no longer suits them. This is particularly dangerous considering the ex-commanders’ history of reverting to rebellion when they don’t get what they want.

Global Witness said on a recent press release to have evidence that companies in eastern DRC and Rwanda are still buying goods directly from militarized mines.

Some in the industry have committed on paper to greater supply chain traceability and more responsible sourcing practices, but so far companies buying minerals from eastern Congo have failed to move beyond the rhetoric and put in place credible due diligence measures.

Annie Dunnebacke contends, on a Global Witness press release, that

It’s not enough for companies to rely on promises made or paperwork filled out by their suppliers. If companies want to avoid being complicit in the conflict and human rights abuses, they have to carry out investigations to find out exactly which mines the goods come from, and who has benefited from the trade. Information about who controls which mine site is common knowledge in the trading towns of eastern Congo. Companies buying minerals from militarised areas cannot claim ignorance.

Tags: Africa, cellphones, IT, minerals, ,