Blog / 19 Aug 2019

Supply chains may sound technical, but they come down to how we value human life and our environment

In March, a friend in DR Congo sent a WhatsApp. It read, “12 bodies lifted out, I’ll send a list of names… I am exhausted. Been there all day…”

In May, we received this from Sudan: “armed elements have taken over the [gold] market and burnt several buildings in the compound.”

In June, another message arrived from the same friend: “death of a man in the mine site […] the cooperative gave US$300 for the wake and US$1200 for upkeep of his family”.

These are examples of what happens along supply chains: the loss of life and human suffering linked to the metals and minerals that underpin our daily lives.

Over the past decade, and from all over the world, colleagues and I investigating metal supply chains have received these messages regularly. These individuals’ stories, viewed together, reveal what we tolerate as business-as-usual in how metals and minerals are mined, produced and traded globally. It’s a systemic problem.

Systems failure

Minzayar Myanmar mining - man with red flag in front of dump truck

Industry must no longer avoid supply chain risks and red flags, but seek to identify and address them. Global Witness / Minzayar

Over time, the mining and metal industry has gained in power as global demand for its products increases and its output grown accordingly. This, in the context of an economic model that so often devalues work, human life and the environment, means almost anything can be offered up to the market, whatever the cost to people or planet.

From large industrial mines to small-scale pits, from refineries to commodity traders, our economics and business structures allow the abuse of human rights, facilitate the criminalisation and murder of those protecting their land and environment from unsustainable natural resource extraction,  contaminate waterways, raze forests and fund wars. We observe as grand corruption in the mining sector robs communities of economic benefits while others make vast sums of money from the assets. Busy earning, living in comfort. Other people die.

Occasionally, supply chain disasters hit the headlines. Global Witness has written about Brazil’s Vale mining disasters or Glencore’s recent decision to close cobalt mines while miners’ deaths and corruption allegations hang above the company.

Viewed in isolation, these incidents seem discrete. Taken together they are expressions of systems failure.  And while industry often dismiss these as anomalies, our research suggests that in reality these incidents are commonplace and often treated as an inevitable part of doing business in the mining and metals sector.

Rarely does there appear to be real accountability and rarer still, remediation for the victims affected by abuses in supply chains.

The thirteen Congolese families bereaved in June from the WhatsApp messages that opened this piece received just over US$140 each, as compensation. That’s USD140 to compensate for a man’s life, as he dug the metals that international companies rely upon.

This needs to change. Corruption, human rights abuse, environmental degradation, and violence can no longer be seen as business as usual.

The new resources rush

Recently, the climate crisis has spurred a new rush for natural resources and brought the issues linked to their supply chains into sharper focus. Metals like lithium and cobalt, barely heard of ten years ago, have gained significant importance as car companies go electric and we look to renewables like solar panels and wind turbines in the search for alternatives to fossil fuels.

shutterstock_Electric car.jpg

As industry starts investing in green technologies like electric cars, we must ensure that the minerals they rely on are sourced responsibly. Shutterstock 

The green tech transition is an opportunity for change, including throughout supply networks. We must avoid a repeat of the deceptive tactics of the oil majors in the 1970s, who hid the known effects of fossil fuels while they bagged the massive profits. We must learn lessons from the grand corruption we and others have exposed in the mining sector that provides metals to market at any cost. The green tech revolution can and must do better if it is to benefit those mining the resources, as well as those selling and using them.

We must not hide the ugly underbelly of our supply chains in a bid to reduce carbon impacts and compensate for historical over-consumption in the Global North. Instead, we must ensure that renewable energy is sourced responsibly and is part of a global just transition.

So what now?

Supply chains are inherently risky and so is doing business. Hiding or ignoring supply chain risks is not a solution and is incompatible with responsible business practice, as we have shown time and time again at Global Witness.

RS1098_27_PEM_COD_SudKivu_3896-lpr.jpg

Shared earth, shared endeavour – the metals we rely on should not come at any cost to people or planet. Phil Moore

Instead, companies must know and show the risks in their supply networks, including any links to corruption, conflict, human rights abuses and environmental damage, and what they are doing to address them. This process is known as supply chain due diligence. Commodities exchanges should use their commercial leverage and central position within the supply chain and only allow responsible businesses with robust due diligence practices to use their platforms.

Governments have responsibilities of course, and there is a growing body of legislation worldwide that now requires companies to do this due diligence and - importantly - publish their findings, including sharing information on what they're doing in practice to tackle risks and problems. But governments too seem to struggle against the push and pull of profit over people and planet, to attract the corporations and investments to grow economies and boost GDP. For example, when illegal logging appears to go unchecked by EU authorities and even the aggregated number of companies importing metals into a country remains undisclosed, it’s difficult not to question the political will to promote transparency and accountability in the natural resource sector.

And while it’s important that we are aware of what our personal buying habits connect us to, we must not be persuaded to pin everything on the consumer. Systemic problems require companies and governments – and that is, the people in companies and governments - to make structural changes that promote a different way to trade.

We cannot continue to value price and demand for metals and minerals over people and the environment. If we are to move towards a low-carbon future and truly responsible mineral trading - we have to change the way we extract and trade metal.

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