Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Congolese mines’ harsh human toll is no deep, dark secret

Many mines are controlled by armed groups that ransack the land’s resources to buy weapons, robbing the country of tax revenues, and creating a situation the United Nations Security Council describes as “the world’s leading example of the financial losses and human suffering caused by illegal trafficking in natural resources.’’

From The Boston Globe
Mines’ harsh human toll is no deep, dark secret
Congo’s resources ransacked for minerals used in high-tech devices

Congo’s resources ransacked for minerals used in high-tech devices

Photo credit: Finbarr O’Reilly /Reuters

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / March 15, 2010
In the heart of central Africa, an exhausted young man toils at a dangerous job: digging up bits of minerals from the earth. While he earns little for his efforts, soldiers that illegally control the mine reap the profits. The fruits of his labor are smuggled to neighboring countries, sold to multinational companies, and processed into metals that end up in cellphones, computers, and digital cameras.

That is the scenario portrayed by advocacy groups that say the illicit trade of minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo is fueling violence and human rights abuses.

Many mines are controlled by armed groups that ransack the land’s resources to buy weapons, robbing the country of tax revenues, and creating a situation the United Nations Security Council describes as “the world’s leading example of the financial losses and human suffering caused by illegal trafficking in natural resources.’’

The destruction may be happening more than 6,500 miles away, but it’s closer to home than many people realize, according to the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Ultimately, our cellphones, laptops, and other consumer electronics have been feeding into this war,’’ said David Sullivan, a researcher with the group.

The road from rural mines to retail store shelves where such electronic devices are sold is long and twisted, and until recently most US consumers knew nothing about it.

That is slowly changing.

Several efforts are underway to shed more light on the supply chain that leads to the cellphone in your pocket and the laptop on your desk.

US Representatives Barney Frank of Newton, James P. McGovern of Worcester, and Michael E. Capuano of Somerville support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which would require companies to certify whether their goods contain minerals that originate from conflict areas of Congo. The measure focuses on gold, cassiterite, wolframite, and columbite-tantalite (also known as coltan), minerals common in consumer electronics products.

The bill was introduced in November by US Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state who hopes it will raise awareness. “I’m always worried about what’s going on there,’’ said McDermott. “Central Africa is a black hole in the earth for most people.’’

McDermott’s legislation highlights problems that have long plagued Congo, a country that holds vast amounts of mineral wealth, but remains one of the poorest nations in the world. In the eastern part of the country, illegal Congolese and foreign militia groups have run rampant for years. They have kidnapped and forced civilians to work as laborers, soldiers, and sex slaves. Men and boys are also exploited through debt bondage, and coerced into working in mines for extremely low wages, according to the State Department. Such armed groups “are simply stealing ore and selling it to the international market,’’ said McDermott, and “everyone who has a cellphone has a piece of the action.’’

Similar legislation was introduced last April by US Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Democratic Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Their measure would require companies to disclose their use of Congolese minerals to the Securities and Exchange Commission every year. So far three senators from New England — Patrick J. Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — have signed on as cosponsors.

Congress also recently passed a defense budget that calls for the State Department to create a map of mineral-rich areas that are under the control of armed groups in Congo.

In April, manufacturers and processors of tantalum — a high-performance metal used in many electronic devices — will convene in Boston to brainstorm on ways they can specify the source of tantalum responsibly. The gathering is being sponsored by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, an association of 40 global companies that includes Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Intel Corp., EMC Corp., and Best Buy.

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and another industry group, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, are working to develop a way to certify smelters who obtain tantalum through “socially and environmentally responsible mines’’ in Congo and surrounding countries.

The meeting will be hosted by Cabot Corp., a Boston company that is one of the world’s leading producers of tantalum products.

Andrew O’Donovan, general manager of Cabot’s supermetals division, said the industry coalition is trying to eliminate conflict minerals from the supply chain without freezing out legitimate suppliers in the region.

There are some legitimate mining operations in Congo that are “just trying to make a living like the rest of us,’’ said O’Donovan. But “today there is no system in place to determine the good from the bad,’’ he said.

Cabot officials say they do not get any tantalum from Congo, and have no plans to. The company also avoids tantalum from the Republic of Congo, Zambia, Burundi, and Rwanda.

O’Donovan estimates that the Democratic Republic of Congo supplies 10 percent to 15 percent of the world’s tantalum. “It’s hard to know what they supply, because so much leaks out,’’ he said.

Congolese minerals are two to three times cheaper than those mined in other countries, according to Donovan. That’s partly because large quantities of columbite-tantalite (a source of tantalum) can be found close to the surface of the earth in that region of Africa. Also, the lack of regulation and enforcement, combined with the nation’s poverty-stricken population, make labor cheap.

Since 2002, when the UN released an early report on the illicit trade of Congolese minerals, Cabot officials said they have repeatedly reminded customers and investors that they get tantalum from mines in Canada, Australia, and Mozambique. But none of those mines are now operating. Cabot recently suspended its mining operation in Canada, and the company that owns the mine in Mozambique did the same. In Australia, Talison Minerals ceased its mining operations (which supplied 30 percent of the world’s tantalum) in December 2008.

The recent mine closings will not affect Cabot’s operations, according to Susannah Robinson, director of Cabot’s investor relations, because the company has a large stockpile on hand.

“We have an adequate supply [of tantalum] to meet our needs,’’ she said.

Last year, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative commissioned Resolve Inc., a nonprofit based in Washington, to map the supply chain for tin, tantalum, and cobalt (a mineral used in batteries and magnetic recording media). The group only managed to trace one particular cobalt supply chain from start to finish, according to Resolve’s president, Steve D’Esposito.

Such efforts are a good start to addressing the trade of conflict minerals, said Sullivan, the researcher with the Enough Project. “You look at the last year, and much more has happened over the past year than the last nine years,’’ he said.

Still, Sullivan is concerned about the recent mine closings, and worries it could lead to the another “coltan rush,’’ like the one that took place in Congo a decade ago.

Consumer pressure, as well as increased commitment from companies, will be key to solving the problem, according to Sullivan.

“Companies are starting to look into their supply chains,’’ he said, “but we’d like them to do it with more urgency and resources.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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