Mining for our minerals
The countryside in Eastern Congo is scarred with mines of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold - precious minerals which are essential for products like mobile phones, cars, aeroplanes and jewellery.
Armed groups, including parts of the Congolese national army, have preyed on this lucrative trade to fund a brutal war in eastern Congo for almost 20 years, leaving over 1.4 million people displaced from their homes.
In recent years international efforts have aimed to change this situation by asking firms to take responsibility for what is happening along their mineral supply chains.
But, these international efforts will fall short unless firms take responsibility for their full supply chain, including the people who extract the minerals from the ground.
These are the stories of the people at the very bottom of the international mineral supply chain.
Donatien Vuninguba*, a small-scale mineral trader in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, spreads out a small stock of tantalum he has bought from local miners known as diggers.
Over a decade of academic studies and reports have revealed the links between eastern Congo’s mineral trade and its armed conflict.
International awareness of this problem is growing, as greater attention is paid to the economic forces behind the conflict. Slowly, the way that companies think about their impact and responsibilities is beginning to change.
The tools exist for firms to manage their supply chains responsibly and have done so for five years.
The OECD Due Diligence Guidance was developed in 2010 to help companies cultivate transparent supply chains and make sure they are not financing conflict or human rights abuses through their purchases. The tool allows them to continue sourcing minerals responsibly from high-risk areas like Congo.
Deogratias Mulumeoderhwa, member of a local mine site monitoring committee in Nzibira, Walungu territory, explains how new laws and international guidelines can help the miners:
Since 2012 he has run programs that include teaching diggers, the locally stationed military and other members of mining communities about how the military are no longer allowed in mine sites.
Efforts like these, right at the bottom of the supply chain, can help create opportunities for more responsible sourcing.
Increased international scrutiny has helped to create opportunities for local civil society to improve working conditions at mine sites.
Noella and Romance from a women’s committee based in Mwenga territory have worked since 2011 to improve conditions for women employed on the outskirts of coltan and tin mines:
Efforts to change the way that eastern Congo’s supply chains work have created opportunities for reform, but have also been accompanied by problems. A combination of a six-month mining ban by the Congolese President in 2010, over-stringent interpretation of the new supply chain laws and standards by some industry groups and a slump in market confidence badly affected some tin, tantalum and tungsten mining communities in 2010/11.
Although official mineral exports have now increased again, the decision by some companies to stop sourcing minerals from eastern Congo cost some artisanal diggers their jobs.
Espoir, a digger at a tin and tungsten mine in Walungu territory, said:
International and domestic supply chain reforms are helping some, but many diggers and their families still face daily challenges linked to armed looting of minerals. A tin digger who asked to remain anonymous describes an attack he lived through at a tin mine, Mwenga territory in March 2015:
From the army chiefs down to the rank and file, some members of the army illegally prey on the mineral trade with impunity. Many diggers live in fear of attack by the very men who should provide their protection. Charles, a gold miner from Mwenga says:
At some sites, artisanal diggers are forced to pay illegal taxes to members of the state army and armed groups.
Local chiefs and representatives of local government mining bodies also demand off-the-book payments. These taxes are both illegal and diminish diggers’ often meagre revenues even further. The head of a team of 60 gold diggers, who asked to remain anonymous, explains:
John represents all the gold traders in Lugushwa. He explains how armed attacks have brought insecurity to the area which has in turn affected business.
Even those diggers who work in one of eastern Congo’s many mines which are free from armed control often work in extremely difficult conditions. They work for long hours, with unpredictable and low returns for their minerals and without the right tools or protective equipment. Many diggers die each year because of accidents around mine sites or mine shaft collapses.
A digger wishing to remain anonymous explains:
Artisanal miners are vulnerable to both local and international market price fluctuations. Many diggers interviewed by Global Witness feel at the mercy of the market and that profits generated from the sale or export of the minerals they dig do not benefit their own communities.
Mushagalusa Alfonse, who works in Muhinga tin mine, Walungu territory, describes his experience:
Diggers working at sites where reforms are taking place continue to talk about the low price that they receive for their minerals. More must be done to ensure that the diggers themselves benefit from supply chain reforms, including ensuring diggers receive fair wages. An anonymous digger (not pictured) at a site where a mineral bagging, tagging and due diligence scheme run by ITRI (International Tin Research Institute) has been set up explains:
In an effort to protect miners’ rights, the Congolese government has made membership of a cooperative a legal obligation for all artisanal diggers in Congo. But, diggers interviewed by Global Witness say that they have often received nothing at all in return for the membership fee that they have paid. A digger at a mine in Mwenga said:
As the global appetite for electronics, machinery and consumer goods increases minerals from places like Congo are likely to remain in high demand.
Although some companies are slowly beginning to take greater responsibility for the way their supply chains work and what’s going on along them, the speed and breadth of international developments are in stark contrast to the pace of change on the ground in eastern Congo.
Companies should source minerals – responsibly - from Congo, but the terms of the deal must be urgently changed: eastern Congo’s mineral wealth should benefit, first and foremost, those living and working in its artisanal mining communities.
Every company in each mineral supply chain, from the household names to the much lesser known traders, smelters and refiners tucked further along the route that Congo’s minerals pass through, must take responsibility for the impact their business has at every step of the supply chain.