Monday, June 28, 2010

Conflict Minerals in Congo

Conflict minerals is a term that I never heard in Swahili. Of course I heard about minerals (generally in relationship to whether I might like to buy some). And I heard plenty about conflict. I just didn't hear very many people in Goma put those two words together.

But now that I am back in the US, following the hot celebrity trends and flashy advocacy campaigns, and conflict minerals is all I ever hear about Congo.

Well, besides the fact that Congo is "the rape capital of the world" of course.

So is it true?

Are there minerals in Congo? Absolutely. I could watch young men sitting around a water tap and washing off coltan from my balcony from time to time. (coltan's that mineral that makes our cell phones work)

Is there conflict in Congo? I don't think I even need to answer that question.

Are the two related. Of course. The mining of minerals helps fund many of the armed groups in the region. But so do truck loads of cabbages traveling from farm to market. Road blocks on the insecure roads throughout the countryside in Eastern Congo are used by various armed groups to demand money from anyone and anything needing to pass by. Including cabbages. Roads are a valuable (and scarce) resource in Congo, and just like the minerals, they are seen as a revenue stream for no shortage of armed groups.

And that I think is why I never heard much talk about conflict minerals in Congo. Along with the fact that I hung out with women who were far more likely to be talking about the best way to prepared ugali (a food) than the best way to mine minerals.

But primarily, I think I never heard much about conflict minerals because it would kind of be like talking about conflict cabbage. It's not that it is incorrect, so much as it is incomplete. The reality is that most of the produce you can buy in Goma probably paid a roadblock "tax" at least once to get to you, and part of the price you pay for those goods, is going to support the armed men who demanded that money. There is little in Congo, that the conflict hasn't touched in some way. If people in Eastern Congo started adding the "conflict prefix" to every applicable word, where would it stop?

And yet, Western consumers don't buy conflict cabbages. And they do buy products made from conflict minerals, especially trendy little devices like iphones, hence the suddenly popular use of the term.

There is a bill in congress aiming to reduce the use of "conflict minerals" by requiring electronics companies that trade on the stock exchange to identify the source of their supplies.

I am all for shortening supply chains and making them more transparent. I believe that one of the great evils of our times is that we have become so disconected from the things that we buy, and the ways that they are produced.

What we buy does matter, and the fact that we buy from very large companies, who in turn outsource many stages of production, makes it ever more difficult to know exactly what we are buying and how it was produced.

Any move to demand greater accountability from international corporations, and greater responsibility for all levels of the supply chain, is good.

So in principle, how could I argue with the conflict minerals legislation?

But still there is something that bothers me about this whole movement, and I just can't let it go.

I think it is the ease with which "conflict minerals" rolls off the tongue. It's like it was ready-made for a marketing campaign. Or maybe it is the fact that I never really did hear it roll off the tongue much in Congo.

While in Congo I would often ask people what they believed the solution to the conflict was. Most people found this question extremely difficult to answer, and would often remain silent or respond "Mungu anajua" (God knows)

So when I read this statement from the US based advocacy group behind the push for legislation, I start to get nervous...

"Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo... the battle for the resources has left over 5 million dead. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo, making it the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or girl.

We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution."

I'm glad we have all the solutions. Especially for such a complicated war. It is quite convenient and all.

But just in case there might be a few more words that need to be said on this topic...I'll be back tomorrow for the second half of this blog.


Unknown said...

Brilliant synopsis. Don't stop writing about the DRC
Mike C

Sasha Lezhnev, Enough Project said...

No one is trying to over-simplify the issue, Shona. See our report on a comprehensive approach to dealing with conflict minerals, which offers policy recommendations on key security, governance, and livelihood issues.

Security sector reform, diaspora support for the FDLR, and land issues are also among the keys to dealing with the war, and those of us leading the conflict minerals campaign raise these squarely with policymakers. But dealing with these issues requires political will, something that has been lacking to date. But this political will can be generated through attention on conflict minerals, since everyone owns a cell phone and has some piece of Congo's minerals in their phones and laptops. The armed groups also generate far more money from minerals than they do from taxation of agriculture, as commanders have confirmed to us in meetings several times.

As former policymakers, our targeted aim is to generate the right momentum for a real solution to the war in eastern Congo, not offer silver-bullet straw-man solutions. Thank you.