While humanity’s use of electronics is tainted with unpleasant aspects—ranging from the need for “suicide nets” under the windows of Chinese iPhone factories to the numerous op-eds lamenting the loss of face-to-face connections—perhaps no consequence has been as dire as the brutal violence seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This devastation, manifesting in warfare over mineral mines, has been long underamplified. A new wave of hope, however, may be rising as the positive impacts of a provision in the United States’ 2010’s Dodd–Frank Act, requiring businesses to publicly disclose any use of conflict minerals originating in the DRC or an adjoining country, come to light.
If you own an electronic device, you own minerals that were mined in the DRC. The country is said to have a “resource curse,”2 and the contents of its land have been usurped by Belgian colonization in the 1870s, “Africa’s World War” from 1998 to 2003, and the death of 5.4 million people in the last 10 years, with an estimated 1,500 perishing daily.3 What could be valuable enough to claim the lives of so many? The minerals tantalum, coltan, tungsten, tin, and gold are in massive supply in the DRC; 50 percent of the world’s tantalum is found in the region. These minerals hold enormous worth in the current age, as laptops, video game consoles, cell phones, and numerous other devices could not function without them.4 Tantalum and coltan store electricity, tungsten enables devices to vibrate, gold is used to coat wires, and tin is used as a suture on circuit boards.5
The mines containing these minerals are fought over and controlled by an “innumerable” number of armed militias.6 These militias are composed of Rwandan, Ugandan, Zimbabwean, Angolan, and Namibian men, remnants of their home countries’ invasion (Rwanda and Uganda) and attempted protection (Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia) of the DRC in 1998. Once mined, the minerals are smuggled into Rwanda or Uganda. The plunder of the militant groups are most often purchased by Asian-based corporations that assemble much of the world’s electronics. Congolese minerals are incorporated into the global raw material supply and can be found in the final products of Apple, IBM, Nintendo, Dell, Canon, Samsung, Motorola, HP, Acer, Nokia, and other major electronics brands.7
The manner in which the minerals are obtained has created the foundation for cruel conflict. In order to maintain control of and work the mines, militants require citizen labor and cooperation. Children are often kidnapped and used as soldiers or miners, men and women are underpaid and overworked on the mining grounds, and rape has become the most common control tactic used by the militants to assert their authority over the Congolese.5 A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that two million women had been raped in the DRC, and at a rate of one woman raped every minute, that number has only continued to swell.8,9 Rape is a common, if scarcely combated, weapon of war, and the level of violence in the DRC displays how dependent militant groups are on rape to fracture families and communities. Rape has evolved into such a norm for all militant groups that women are able to tell the affiliation of their attackers by the style of their rape.
The ability of the Congolese to reclaim control of natural resources and the economy is hindered by an AIDS health crisis; an estimated 30 percent of women have contracted HIV due to a 60 percent infection rate amongst the militant men. Many women suffer from fistulas (rips in the vaginal wall) due to gang rape, mutilation with objects such as sticks and bayonets, and the firing of guns into their genitals. Numerous organizations attempting to bring aid to men, women, and children in the DRC are struggling to survive. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the sole gynecologist at the Panzi Hospital in eastern DRC notes that, “We treat one, and send her home to the village, and she returns with five more.”10
The sovereignty of the DRC over its land, resources, and people has always been rocky. The end of Belgian colonization in 1960 was followed by a string of dictators, corrupt elections, assassinations, and UN interventions. The 1990s saw destabilization of the frail country due to the influx of refugees from neighboring Rwanda.3 A civil war from 1996 to 1997 set the ground for the invasion by Rwanda and Uganda, a war that lasted from 1998 to 2003, and saw the involvement of eight African countries whose interests were represented by over 20 armed groups. Rwandan President Paul Kagame called the war “self-sustaining,” as the profits earned from Congo minerals gained the Rwandan army up to USD$20 million per month. Since the official end of this war in 2003, little has changed for the Congolese. Taxes are frequently demanded by and paid to militant groups, and the DRC government is underfunded, overwhelmed, and carries a fraudulent history. In February 2013, 11 African nations signed a statement declaring and promising their support for the end of violence in the DRC, but the underfunded Congolese government has had little ability to support its people over the last several years.3 The demand for what is buried in the earth of the Congo is so high, the profit to be made so great, that it is hard to conceive change unless the nature of the demand shifts to one that will no longer allow the supply to be tainted with these atrocities.
The dim spotlight shining on the Congo conflict was enough to earn a mention in the US’ sweeping Dodd–Frank reforms, enacted in 2010 to address the causes of the financial crisis. The multistep process outlined by Section 1502 includes investigating supply chains, declaring the minerals’ impact on products, filing annual reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and making information available to consumers online. Though it is a notable step toward increasing awareness and diminishing the profitability of these horrendous practices, the rule contains a notable flaw. There are no consequences for businesses who refuse to comply, save for the possibility of negative public opinion. For the first two years of enforcement, companies are also able to merely report that their use of conflict minerals is “undeterminable.”11 This lack of knowledge may be excusable due to how low the raw minerals are found on the supply chain. Minerals from the DRC go through as many as 10 intermediary corporations prior to being sold as finished products.
A check in on the progress of the reforms, however, has produced a pleasant surprise. Potential did not at first seem promising; in the spring of 2013, a year out from a May 2014 reporting deadline, the results of a survey concluded that one-third of company executives remained unsure as to whether the law applied to their ventures. Few had created plans to investigate their supply chains, and a study by Tulane University Law School’s Payson Center for International Development estimated that the first year of enforcement would cost nearly USD$8 billion. However, this year the Enough Project found that, despite underwhelming enthusiasm from participating companies, the rule has provided a catalyst for change.12 Nearly 200 mines have been assessed in the last several years, with 163 passing the process. From 2013 to 2015, there was a 357 percent increase in the recorded amount of conflict-free tungsten exported from the Congo. This statistic is particularly significant, as one of the main critiques of the legislation has been that it will take away desperately needed industry from the already economically poor region, as manufacturers who are unable to certify minerals from the region as conflict-free will abstain from the region altogether.13 Individual companies have also taken it upon themselves to lead the conflict-free movement. Intel partnered with the Conflict Free Sourcing Initiative to create an audit and verification system implemented at smelting sites that work the raw minerals into metal. A large section of the Intel website is dedicated to information on the background of the conflict in the DRC and how Intel is going about its efforts to “lead the way toward conflict free.” These efforts have resulted in the world’s first microprocessors that are validated as conflict-free for tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold.
In its progress report, the Enough Project spoke to Daphrose, a woman living in a Congolese mining town. She reported that since the Dodd–Frank reforms have begun making an impact, “more or less, it’s better now” in the Congo.14 Celebrating the success of a seemingly unlikely solution provides an opportunity to look toward an even better future. The DRC needs a transparent government with a strong rule of law to work hand-in-hand with manufacturers and citizens who require protection from militant groups looking to turn Congo’s resource wealth to their advantage. A complete end to this style of violence is only feasible with a massive shift in global production norms. However, as corporate action is spurred by consumer demand, the actions of the average consumer are also vital to progressing toward a conflict-free electronics supply. The results of the conflict minerals rule has shown corporations that change is possible, and now it is up to consumers to tell corporations, with their dollars, that responsible change is profitable.
- Conflict-free processors [online] (2014). http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/corporate-responsibility/conflict-freeminerals.html.
- Lalji, N. The resource curse revised: conflict and coltan in the Congo. Global Policy Forum [online] (2007). http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40150.html.
- Democratic Republic of Congo profile. BBC News Africa [online] (2013). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13286306.
- Gettlemen, J. The price of precious. National Geographic [online] (2013). http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/conflictminerals/gettleman-text.
- Prendergast, J. Conflict minerals 101. Enough! Project [online] (November 18, 2009). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFsJgcoY20.
- Congo’s wars: peace they say, but the killing goes on. The Economist [online] (March 27, 2003). http://www.economist.com/node/1667129.
- Ma, T. China and Congo’s coltan connection. Project 2049 [online] (2016). http://project2049.net/documents/china_and_congos_coltan_connection.pdf.
- Gettlemen, J. Congo study sets estimate for rape much higher. The New York Times [online] (May 11, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/world/africa/12congo.html?_r=0.
- Theophile, M. Why they rape: DRC child soldier spout. Safeworld Field Partners [online] (2012). http://www.asafeworldforwomen.org/fpdrc/cofapri/cofapri-blogs/3031-former-child-soldiereaks.html.
- Nolen, S. Not women anymore: the Congo’s rape survivors face shame, pain, and AIDS. Ms. Magazine [online] (2005). http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2005/congo.asp.
- Bowman, R. Companies need to step up to meet new conflict-minerals reporting rule. Forbes [online] (December 10, 2013). http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbowman/2013/12/10/companies-need-to-step-up-tomeet-new-conflict-minerals-reporting-rule/.
- Dodd–Frank 1502: impact update. Enough! Project [online] (February 26, 2016). http://www.enoughproject.org/reports/dodd-frank-1502-impact-update.
- Berlau, J. Dodd–Frank is hurting those who had nothing to do with the financial crisis. The New York Times [online] (April 14, 2016). http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/04/14/has-dodd-frank-eliminated-the-dangers-in-the-banking-system/dodd-frank-is-hurting-those-who-had-nothing-to-do-with-the-financial-crisis.
- Dranginis, H. Boom town: what happened when Wall Street reform came to Congo’s frontier mining towns. Enough! Project [online] (February 11, 2016). https://medium.com/@EnoughProject/boom-town-afe0075ce163#.3yr0n2a2k.