It’s always nice to be proven right, particularly when it is by actual in-depth research by a specialist investigator in the subject, whose credentials are beyond any doubt. It is however not so nice when the confirmation pertains to one's deepest darkest fears. In this case, the fear that favouring ‘clean’ mining products over ‘blood diamonds’ and other ‘conflict minerals’ may make things worse rather than better.
Congolese members of the ZAM network had, for years, expressed doubts with regard to campaigns against ‘blood diamonds’ and such. They had pointed out that many people in mineral-rich countries depended on stuff -be it diamonds, gold, coltan, cobalt or whatever- they dug up themselves, and that international boycotting of minerals that could not be proven to be ‘clean’ just made it harder for them to earn a living. Being just villagers, they had no access to any such certification, nor could they always stay away from conflict since conflict had a way of finding them. To them, the only way out of conflict and misery would be to make a good living from their own artisanal mining. And precisely this was made impossible by the well-intentioned, crusading certifiers against suspected ‘blood’ and ‘conflict’ minerals.
Congolese colleagues had also reported, with regard to the DRC, that boycotting minerals mined by unofficial groups, -even if there might be militias among them-, only made one particular armed mining group in the DRC stronger and ever more abusive: that of the thoroughly corrupt and oppressive army of the DRC itself.
Enter Emmanuel Freudenthal, now a freelance investigative reporter based in Nairobi, formerly a specialist researcher at Global Witness, the international organisation that campaigns for an end to human rights abuses linked to exploitation of natural resources. With such a background, Freudenthal can hardly be suspected of links to evil mining enterprises that fuel wars and create the kind of misery one thinks of when one hears the term ‘conflict minerals.’
“A lot of people have become poorer”
Freudenthal found that the certifying channel for ‘conflict- free minerals’, -a kind of Fair Trade label for mining that guarantees that the product has been mined in a separate environment from any conflict area-, actually oppressed mineworkers. During his visits to mines in the eastern DRC scores of such workers had told Freudenthal that their working conditions were worse than they had been before their mine had received the ‘conflict-free’ label. Miners were now exploited in a stranglehold between mining company, government and the certifying institution, a tightly shut channel to ensure that no other minerals ‘entered the stream.’ All the rest -like the fact that miners were starving and abused- did not matter. The miners also had no way to organize and fight for improvement of their conditions -god forbid there would be ‘conflict,’ after all.
Freudenthal wrote to articles for the news agency IRIN on his findings. Besides mineworkers, he also quoted independent researchers and employees of ‘conflict-free minerals’ campaigning groups who had come to doubt their own campaigning activities in this regard. “It seems to me that the preponderance of evidence suggests that people’s livelihoods have been affected: a lot of people have become poorer,” one such employee told him anonymously. “There’s been a lack of willingness to look the facts in the face.” Freudenthal concluded that “organisations campaigning against conflict minerals in Congo closed a blind eye to the harm.”
The rules that the organisations had campaigned for, and which should guarantee to the public worldwide that minerals ‘for our cellphones and tablets’ were ‘conflict-free,’ are presently enshrined in the US Dodd-Frank law, Section 1502, which no one other than Donald Trump wants to repeal. In the light of Freudenthal’s research, a debate is now on whether Trump may not have a point here. He may not, because instant repeal may, like any instant new legal framework that has been insufficiently researched, also have bad consequences. “Most actors agree that Section 1502 has had some benefits: there’s certainly a greater awareness that armed groups, in particular the national army, shouldn’t profit from the mining trade. It also forced companies to find out what happens in their supply chains and made some end-users at least think about where such raw materials came from. The law’s impact on reducing conflict, however, is harder to ascertain and dismissed by some as non-existent,” writes Freudenthal. He suggests that, rather, a whole lot of changes to the law based on in-depth research may be needed, and then "it’s implementation on the ground."
The articles by the former Global Witness researcher have been severely criticised by the campaigning group ‘The Enough Project,’ whose spokespersons pointed out that “111 Congolese civil society organisations have written to the (US) Securities and Exchange Commission over the past two months asking for the Dodd-Frank 1502 law to not be repealed or weakened”. But Sara Geenen, a lecturer who has researched artisanal mining in Congo for the past decade, told Freudenthal that for many Congolese NGOs “There is a lot of money involved and so it really becomes an opportunity for them to provide [for] themselves as experts on the mining sector. What I hear from them is: ‘we have to say what they [the international NGOs] want us to say’.”
If establishing closed channels for ‘conflict-free’ minerals is not good for Congolese communities and mineworkers, the question for concerned activists worldwide becomes what to do instead. How to stand in solidarity with the abused and the starving in the mineral resource-rich areas of the DRC? Eric Mwamba, veteran investigative reporter in the DRC and author of ‘the predator state’, says that any initiative that works with an abusive government, such as the DRC’s Kabila-government, only helps exploiters to exploit more. “Even that ‘conflict-free’ mining company depends for their license on the structures of a corrupt and oppressive state that does not care about workers or communities. That state won’t allow any partner company to treat its workers well, since that would mean competition with other companies that also exploit and abuse their workers and in which powerful individuals in the state have an interest. That state insists that your operation must benefit the corrupt elite.”
As an example, Mwamba mentions the suspension in 2010 of Canadian First Quantum mines mining license, after it had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its Kolwezi mining project. “Sources involved in the negotiations with First Quantum told me that a senior state official had wanted the mine to pay what he called ‘tax’ to him personally and not to the state. When they refused, their mining license was suspended, their investment was lost and they had to leave the country.” A press release issued by First Quantum after the suspension of the license mentioned that the ‘illegal’ act by the DRC state was to “result in the immediate loss of approximately 700 jobs and loss of tax revenues to the DRC government.”
“People would be more able to insist on their rights if they had some income”
Mwamba also raises the fact that the closed ‘conflict-free’ channel between mining companies, the certifying institution and the Congolese state blocks independent miners from selling their winnings. “Besides, ‘conflict-free’ labelled minerals are often not conflict-free at all, since under the table, individuals in all concerned parties have their own connections with militias.”
So should we then buy all our minerals from artisanal miners and simply hope that they won’t joint militias or rebel groups? Mwamba’s answer comes close to such an option. To him, one way of exercising real solidarity with abused people in mining villages in the DRC is just to ensure that they get more money. “When I travel there I note that people who are not connected to pay masters, -be they politicians or warlords-, are just so hungry. They would be more able to insist on their rights if they had some income.”
In a response, the Enough Project, after initially requesting that Freudenthal and IRIN stop publication of his findings, has published an op-ed article on IRIN. The article whilst repeating that links between armed groups and mining should be broken, does however not really engage Freudenthal’s arguments. In contrast, Global Witness welcomed the research, tweeting “Long live scrutiny. It makes our work better and all of us smarter.”
Read Emmanuel Freudenthal’s two articles here: