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Consequences of Conflict Mineral Campaigns

The leading op-ed from The New York Times earlier this week points out that feel-good campaigns to limit access to conflict minerals often have devastating unintended consequences, “How Congress Devastated Congo.

The “Loi Obama” or Obama Law — as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act of 2010 has become known in the region — includes an obscure provision that requires public companies to indicate what measures they are taking to ensure that minerals in their supply chain don’t benefit warlords in conflict-ravaged Congo. The provision came about in no small part because of the work of high-profile advocacy groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness, which have been working for an end to what they call “conflict minerals.”

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.

The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped. No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords — especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals. It’s easier to sidestep Congo than to sort out the complexities of Congolese politics — especially when minerals are readily available from other, safer countries.

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.

Do read the entire heart-breaking piece. It’s not enough to have good intentions when passing legislation. There are clearly a number of horrific things going on in Congo and other countries, but that does not mean that limiting the economic opportunities of already desolate locals will solve the problem. In this case, it seems to have made the situation undeniably worse. And there will be few consequences for the organizations involved with these campaigns, who will have moved onto their next target. The concluding paragraph:

But once the advocacy groups succeeded in framing the debate as a contest between themselves and greedy corporate interests, no one bothered to solicit the opinion of local Congolese.  As the leader of a civil-society group, Eric Kajemba, asked me, more in confusion than in anger, “If the advocacy groups aren’t speaking for the people of eastern Congo, whom are they speaking for?”

Think about this, the next time you see environmental groups denouncing mining campaigns in eco-sensitive areas of poor countries. To those that live in these impoverished areas, economic concerns will trump concern for the environment every time.

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