Staunching the flow: blood minerals for smartphones

The instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is being fuelled by the need for minerals used in smartphones and other devices. EU legislation takes effect soon, but will it be enough to tackle the problem? Madeleine Rojahn reports.

In 2010, Danish director Frank Poulsen created the film Blood in the Mobile, where he investigated the mining of coltan (columbite-tantalite), a crucial element in powering our electronic devices, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

At the time, almost five million people had been killed in the country in ongoing struggles and political instability. Poulsen saw children crawl into claustrophobic tunnels 100 metres deep. The children sometimes did not surface for a week, because of the exhaustion of dragging their bodies back and forth. He watched them hack away at the walls of makeshift mines, with the legitimate fear that these walls would collapse and leave them crushed. Such events happened almost monthly, with fatal accidents involving 80 miners occurring between 2014 and 2015 in the former province of Katanga.

According to Unicef, in 2014 there were an estimated 40,000 child labourers in the DRC. Eight years after the film was released, thousands of people are still working there under these conditions. “As long as we let the market run our society, the agenda will be set by those who are willing to be the most greedy and the most brutal,” says Poulsen.

In 2021, the EU’s new Conflict Minerals Regulation is due to come into full force. In an effort to stifle the financing of armed groups in conflict mines, the regulation aims to ensure 95% of EU imports of tin, tantalum (derived from coltan), tungsten and gold are sustainably sourced. EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström called the regulation “a huge step forward in efforts to stop human rights abuses and armed conflict financed by trade in minerals”.

New efforts to combat conflict minerals such as this are a step towards keeping large companies accountable for their supply stream, but bureaucracy is a tough boulder blocking this path.

DRC’s vast wealth is a corporate dream, as it has some of the world’s most demanded minerals – especially cobalt and coltan, of which it has the world’s majority. But to the Congolese people, this wealth is a part of their downfall.

Sekombi Katondolo, a radio producer based in Goma, who produced Blood in the Mobile and is located in the war-ravaged eastern Congo, says things in general have improved following the country’s first democratic elections since its independence from Belgium 41 years ago. However, the situation for locals has not changed yet, because of the continual looting of mines by violent armed groups, he adds.

The DRC blood mineral route

  • Congolese miners
  • Independent traders
  • CDM* (Smelting)
  • China (further processing)
  • China and South Korea (battery component manufacturers
  • Battery manufacturers
  • Popular consumer brands
  • Consumers

Loopholes have already been identified throughout the proposal, which affects only EU-based firms: “The regulation covers only companies that import minerals in their raw forms, so companies that bring the same minerals into the EU inside components of finished products are not covered by the legislation,” says Amnesty International researcher Lauren Armistead. “Late in negotiations, EU member states also successfully pushed for the inclusion of a series of import thresholds that will further reduce the number of companies required to comply,” she adds.

The only consequence for non-complying importers listed appears to be a simple telling off, with member states holding sole responsibility for following up importers to “make sure” they address the problem. It is uncertain whether this will be enough to motivate companies to become convincingly accountable, trusting, ethical providers.

However, Amnesty welcomes the regulation, even if it is a “half-hearted step towards cleaning up the trade in minerals in Europe”, says Armistead. “Although this regulation sends a strong signal to a small group of companies, it is leaving it up to other companies to regulate themselves.”

Poulsen holds that companies need a much tougher incentive. “What we need to say is: if you use child labour anywhere in your supply chain, you, as a CEO in our country, can be put in jail. If that were the case, then I can assure you they would find out how their supply chain works,” he says.

Amnesty’s research traced cobalt from mines, and contacted companies found to be sourcing cobalt from the DRC and/or from Huayou Cobalt in China, the parent company of smelter Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM) – see diagram overleaf.

The companies, including Apple, Samsung and Microsoft, denied any relationship with Huayou Cobalt. However, they were unable to explain where their cobalt came from. Given the high prevalence of cobalt from DRC in the global market, it is highly unlikely that these successful and wealthy companies are not sourcing any of their cobalt unethically, according to Amnesty.

Companies could carry out similar research themselves, argues Amnesty. “If Amnesty has managed to investigate the cobalt supply chains, companies should be able to do it,” says Armistead. Mark Dummett, the organisation’s business and research director, adds: “The dangers to health and safety make mining one of the worst forms of child labour. Companies whose global profits total $125bn (£88bn) cannot credibly claim they are unable to check where key minerals in their productions come from.”

What are ‘conflict minerals’ and ‘conflict mines’?

  • Coltan and cobalt are minerals essential to the production of devices such as smartphones and electric cars
  • The DRC is particularly rich with many minerals that are in high demand, such as coltan and cobalt
  • The DRC provides 60% of the world’s cobalt and has the largest supply of coltan
  • Rebels and armed groups run many of the mines, ruling with violence and exploitation. They impose heavy entry and exit taxes on miners and civilians
  • Amnesty International says child labour and exploitative, unsafe work are prevalent among cobalt mines in southern Congo, whereas coltan mines in the east are rife with conflict and armed groups
  • Minerals are sold to Asia, where they are smelted and refined before big firms purchase them
  • There are a few ‘conflict-free’ mines in the DRC – however, extreme lack of safety provisions and financial exploitation still prevail
  • Revenue adds to conflict in the trade, allowing militia groups to buy weapons

There are numerous sources of coltan in the world. However, the largest and cheapest source is in the DRC, which is why it is so appealing to manufacturers. So outside pressure is needed, says Poulsen. “It should be clear by now that all companies and big businesses are not going to change on their own. Even though they have all these nice descriptions on how socially responsible they are and how much they care about the environment, they always go for the cheap solution.”

In addition, the demand for goods that rely on cobalt and coltan to function is due to rise, thereby putting even more pressure on their extraction. The drive for change may lie in both consumer awareness and the stricter regulation of companies that use these minerals.

Armistead believes boycotting is not the answer, as mining is a livelihood for many people living in the Congo, and that the problem is primarily company exploitation. “We would never call for a boycott of these products, but we do think that consumers have great leverage to demand better practices,” she says.

If companies are not properly held accountable for where they source their minerals from, we must ask whether they are partly complicit in the deaths of those who have died labouring in Congolese mines.

The miners should be benefiting from the wealth they help create, says Dummett.

“Mining the basic materials that power an electric car or a smartphone should be a source of prosperity for miners in DRC. The reality is that it is a backbreaking life of misery for almost no money. Big brands have the power to change this.”

The companies involved need to do more, says Armistead. “They should be working with organisations and governments on the ground, so that people don’t have to work in a mine that could literally collapse at any point, and children don’t have to go and scavenge in the discarded tailing of an industrial mine. There should be programmes in place where companies have responsibility to remediate any harm that they have benefited from.”

Katondolo expresses hope in the global support that exists to combat the issue. “The effort of the international community is valuable, and it has shown its effectiveness. But what should be done now is to keep pressure on the Congolese authorities, to make sure that the legislation is applying to whoever will transgress it.”

In particular, he says the international community must lose the deux poids, deux mesures (two weights, two measures) mindset, a term referring to the use of double standards.

Unless companies step up and take responsibility, they will continue to fuel violence, conflict and exploitation on the soil of a vulnerable, important member of the international community. 

Madeleine Rojahn is a freelance journalist

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