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Slave labour: mineral crisis in the Congo

ByKai Stuart

Nov 1, 2016

It is common knowledge for many that the Democratic Republic of Congo is not a particularly democratic or peaceful place. President Joseph Kabila continues to try and subvert the constitution in order to hold onto power of the political space as he approaches the end of his second presidential term. The situation has only worsened over the past months, with peaceful protesters being arbitrarily arrested or worse. Kabila has even expelled international officials from organisations such as the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office and condemned both the United States government and the European Union. The lifeline of precious minerals that have sustained the Congolese government are coming under greater scrutiny as the nation grows uncomfortably close to a major crisis.

Perhaps the Congo’s biggest asset, precious minerals, have, throughout its history, been the cause of its greatest problems. Due to the lack of a stable government there is great opportunity open to armed groups, both internal and external, to exploit these resources and the Congolese people. It is estimated by the charity Enough Project that these groups made $185 million from precious minerals in 2008 alone. In turn, the Congolese government has been accused by the United Nations of being complicit in this oppression, with members of Kabila’s government immersed in corruption scandals and enforcing extensive laws on social control.

Many thousands of Congolese citizens work to harvest extremely precious minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite and gold ore. Due to the nature of extraction, these minerals have earned the title, ‘conflict minerals’, in much the same way that comparable practices in the African diamond mining industry led to the term, ‘blood diamonds’. As the UN Group of experts on the Congo have found, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that conflict minerals are an endemic part of the precious minerals market.

This system of labour resembles that of the late 19th century mining towns in the old west of America, where the ‘freedmen’ had no realistic choice other than to work in awful conditions or starve. Likewise, in the Congo the mining barons (whether they be legal or criminal) effectively own their labourers, the settlements in which they reside, and the markets from which they purchase necessities. The ruling government and its elite take the money due to the labourers and continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering. The people of the Congo demand change, but their democracy is failing and their politicians may well abandon them for profit should the international community not take action.

Large suppliers of electronic goods such as HP and Apple depend upon a stable supply of these conflict minerals for the electronic products they sell. Thus the majority of companies are complicit in the ordeal but distance themselves from the extracting process. This is not to say that companies are immune to the social and financial pressures that consumers can produce. The very act of attempting to distance the brands from the extraction process suggests that electronics suppliers are under pressure.

Consumers are implicated, but that is not to say they are the root of the problem. To fix this ongoing problem, it is best to dispense with the culprits and thus stop the crimes. Consumers do have the ability to change influence, as market transactions are a form of social interaction and can be a form of social activism. To enable consumers to be ethical spenders, however, government pressure is needed. An international system of sanctions could address the situation, but with the proposed EU conflict minerals restrictions being put on the back foot due to Brexit it looks unlikely this will happen soon. While we can make an effort to be more ethical consumers, actual ethical alternatives are few and far between in personal electronics.

While the international community has condemned the Congolese government, there remains a great deal that could be done. The new US sanctions on leading members of the regime is a start but not a solution. Progress has been made in the form of the Dodd-Frank Act Section 1502, which requires transparency from companies as to their supply lines of conflict minerals. This may not go far enough, but it has produced a result. The International Peace Information Service have found that in 2014 nearly 70 per cent of mines extracting conflict minerals in the Congo were not controlled by armed groups. This is in comparison to 2010, when UN experts visited the Congo and estimated that nearly 90 per cent of the mines were under the direct influence of armed groups. However, this progress has been endangered by the current unstable situation in the Congo, which many fear could cause a return to previous circumstances.

We can solve this by making conflict-free mining, which makes the promotion of good pay for hard work more viable. To do this, we have to target the big buyers of electronics: governments, universities and offices. The University of Edinburgh is the first in the UK and one of the few universities in Europe to have a conflict-free minerals policy, already making a difference. There is a need to campaign for change from local and central government alike, then vote for representatives who are informed and willing to support the cause. While a local politician may not be aware of the issue, it does not mean they will not be willing to listen.

With universities on their side, students could persuade local and national governments to regulate commercial offices and work with international bodies. The Conflict Free Campus Initiative and the Enough Project aims to do this, and has been successful across North America and Europe. The effects are visible, with a 31 per cent increase in conflict-free mining in the Congo in the past year. This suggests that ethically run mines offering far better safety conditions and pay for workers are becoming competitive because of increased demand in the market. If our public institutions demand better, this encourages and supports conflict-free extraction in the Congo, therefore allowing conflict minerals to become cheaper for major companies to supply.

President Kabila’s attempt to assert dominance and delay elections suggests that he feels threatened. He may well be aware that if the demand for conflict-free products is maintained, his country’s workers will gain increased economic and social power – with which they might just overturn his government or force the corrupt practices of his officials to come to an end.

Image: Josh Green

By Kai Stuart

Features Writer

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