Conflict minerals refer to natural resources that are illegally mined and exported from conflict zones. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (collectively known as 3TG) are used in the production of electronic goods such as smartphones, laptops and gaming devices.
Because of the areas they are sourced from, the trade of conflict minerals finances violence. Links have also been drawn between the trade of conflict minerals and the prevalence of sexual violence and torture in a region. The nature of conflict mineral extraction also makes it extremely dangerous, as workers usually go without protective clothing and are forced to work in poorly-constructed mine shafts that are prone to collapse.
Initiatives such as the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) and the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI) assist companies in identifying where the metals they use come from and choosing those that come from legitimate sources.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the world’s main sources of conflict minerals – between 15-20% of the world’s tantalum, and 6-8% of the world’s tin, originates in the DRC. Since 1996 the country has been embroiled in conflict, resulting in the deaths of over 5.4 million people and the displacement of around 2 million.
The DRC is extremely rich in natural resources and conflict minerals have played a large part in the continued violence. Up to 90% of the revenue from the trade of conflict minerals goes into the pockets of armed groups, and at least one-third of the 2 million civilians working in Congolese mines are children.
Australian mining companies are active in Africa and at least 7 are associated with projects in the DRC, including BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anvil Mining. A June 2014 report found that, while challenges remain, early attempts to address the prevalence of conflict minerals have been successful. Up to two-thirds of mines in the DRC have been demilitarised and over 100 have been certified conflict-free, in turn markedly reducing the profitability of minerals sold through non-conflict-free mines.
- Raise Hope for Congo – Conflict Minerals
- Enough Project – company rankings report, Taking Conflict Out of Consumer Gadgets: Company Rankings on Conflict Minerals 2012
- Baptist World Aid Australia report – The Truth Behind the Barcode: Electronics Industry Trends
Key Standards and Certifications
In 2010 the United States Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, requiring companies to trace where their 3TG minerals come from and publicly disclose if they originate from conflict areas and finance armed groups. Nearly 1,300 U.S.-listed companies filed their first audits on whether their products contained any tin, gold, tungsten or tantalum from Africa’s Congo region.
The Conflict-Free Smelter Program, a program of the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative, conducts third-party audits on African mines and lists those that are compliant with its conflict-free assessment protocols.
Best Practice – Intel announced in January 2014 that every microprocessor that it ships will be made without conflict minerals from Africa, the first company of it’s size to make such a commitment. See Intel’s education portal, National Geographic article and photo, and promo video below.
Existing Campaigns and Advocacy Work
- Enough Project
- Raise Hope for Congo
- Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA)
- Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI)
- Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI)
- Solutions for Hope
Opportunities for Action
Choose products from companies that have taken steps to trace their supply chains and are attempting to avoid sourcing minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- Raise Hope for Congo has ranked the largest electronic companies on their commitment to tracing their supply chains and using legitimately-sourced minerals.
- FairPhone produces smartphones that are 100% conflict-free
Campaign for change.
- Tell Nintendo to stop using conflict minerals. Walk Free campaign
- Tell Your Tech Company: “Make Your Products Fully Conflict-Free with Minerals from Congo” Raise Hope for Congo campaign
- Contact your local members of parliament and express your desire for Australian mining companies to be held accountable for their projects in Africa.
Update - Have things improved?
All the companies in the Enough rankings, apart from HTC, improved their score from the 2010 ranking. And, of course, the appearance of the Fairphone has meant that we are closer to the first conflict-free product on the market.
These steps have had an effect on the ongoing conflict in the Congo, as armed groups are currently only able to generate approximately 35 percent of what they made from the trade in tin, tantalum, and tungsten two years ago.
Much of the progress made by companies on conflict minerals since 2010 is due to U.S. legislation (Dodd-Frank Act), as well as the rapid growth of the conflict-free consumer movement.
Companies ranked best and middle have been directly targeted by activists and the leadership of these companies has impacted the entire industry, pushing forward progress on the ground.
The Dodd-Frank Act took effect from the beginning of 2013 and requires companies to disclose whether they source conflict minerals from the Congo or neighbouring countries, and to report on steps taken to exclude conflict sources from their supply chains, backed by independent audits.
However, the Act was held up for 16 months by corporate lobbying which culminated in a clause which will allow companies to dodge their duty for another two years by stating they don’t know where the minerals are coming from. Furthermore, three corporate lobby groups – the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable – sued the US government to have the new law set aside. The grounds of the lawsuit were that, among other things, the disclosure requirement violated a company’s first amendment right because it required the company to say whether the minerals in its products support conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The plaintiffs also sought an exemption for smaller companies who use minimal amounts of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold in their products.
But on July 23rd 2013, the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC rejected the lawsuit. The Court upheld the legislation, dismissing the challenge by big business lobbyists.
According to Enough: ‘Despite some progress, there is still a long road ahead. The violent extraction of mineral resources continues to stoke conflict on the ground in eastern Congo. It will take a collective effort by multiple industries to curtail the demand for conflict minerals, and the impetus for such efforts will continue to arise in large part from conscious consumers.’