Campaigning against ‘conflict’ minerals

The following article was published in the Caritas in Action column in the Catholic Times (UK) on 21st July 2017.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 15.42.12The dark histories of some of the shiny items adorning our bodies has been popularised by recent Hollywood films and celebrity-backed campaigns. This has permitted the concepts of ‘conflict’ diamonds and ‘dirty’ gold to enter the public consciousness. But what about those other precious, and increasingly indispensable objects, found in our pockets and bags? The sad truth is that our mobile phones and other electronic gadgets contain materials that come at a hefty human and ecological cost.

Thanks to a campaign led by a coalition of organisations, in which Catholic groups have played a central role, the link between digital products and human rights abuses has been exposed. Through public awareness-raising events, enabling affected communities to speak out, and by lobbying politicians, the coalition has succeeded in getting the European Union to introduce legislation to combat the trade of illegally mined metals.

Many precious metals like tin, tungsten, and tantalum – vital for components used in electronic equipment – are mined in areas of the world affected by armed conflict. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is an example of a country that is incredibly rich in mineral deposits, but has been fought over by warring factions for decades. Whilst armed groups in the DRC do not mine the mineral themselves, they force local miners to hand them over for a fraction of the price that they fetch in the international market. The commodities eventually find their way into the international market, into products manufactures in other countries, before ending up on the shelves of our high street shops. A tragic reality is that international trade in minerals is helping finance human rights violations and accompanying environmental degradation in areas of the developing world.

Consumers here in Britain often feel paralysed by such information. What can we do practically to avoid complicity with such injustice?

Pope Francis’ encyclical on “our common home”, Laudato Si’, is a resource for engaging with this kind of dilemma. On the one hand it proposes radical solutions. Individually, the encyclical proposes an “ecological conversion” whereby we are to avoid getting caught in “a whirlwind of needless buying and spending” (§203). Pope Francis highlights the effectiveness of boycott campaigns, reminding us “purchasing is always a moral and not simply an economic act” (§206). On a macroeconomic level, the encyclical urges reform of systems to encourage less consumerist models of life (§112). On the other hand, Laudato Si’ encourages more subtle, incremental changes. In particular, Pope Francis encourages the work of civil society groups who engage with citizens and political institutions to promote the common good.

This Laudato Si’ approach has inspired British Jesuits to engage in the fight against conflict mineral. Through three partner organisations: Jesuit Missions UK, the Brussels-based Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC), and the Spanish development charity ALBOAN, Jesuits in Britain have lent their weight to a campaign that resulted in the European Parliament passing a historic law earlier this year. The legislation requires companies to carry out investigations (known as “due diligence”) to ensure that imported minerals are not linked to conflict or human rights or ecological abuses.

Whilst a regulation emanating from Brussels may seem very remote from what is going on in grass root communities both here in the UK and in the developing world, the Jesuits have tried to bridge the gap. Taking advantage of our global reach, we have been able to connect the experiences of those directly harmed by conflict minerals with European organisations advocating for action. For example, drawing on the experience of its partners on the ground, Jesuit Missions lobbied key UK MEPs and the UK Government, urging them not to water down proposals when they discussed it with the European Commission. Online resources have been developed for schools designed to create awareness among young people about the connection between everyday objects and the problems associated with the exploitation of natural resources. Mobilising individuals via Facebook and Twitter campaigns has also been instrumental in pressurising policy-makers to support controls on conflict minerals.

A central message of Laudato Si’ is the interrelatedness of our world. Just as humanity’s wellbeing is contingent on the health of the natural environment, so the (true) flourishing of economically affluent societies is dependent on respect for the human dignity of all. The conflict minerals trade is a good illustration of this integrated reality. The campaign, in which church groups have stood alongside secular organisations, is an example of how connecting various stakeholders can yield successful outcomes, and help combat a form of inaction which Laudato Si’ terms the “sin of indifference”.

The recently adopted EU legislation on conflict minerals is far from perfect, and its effectiveness will hinge on how it is implemented. In a post-Brexit world, UK citizens and Church group will have an important role to ensure the UK Government honours, and indeed goes beyond, measures agreed at a European level.

Henry Longbottom SJ

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Artisanal Mining in Katanga – Arrupe Centre, Lubumbashi

IMG_0002What is a “conflict mineral”? The recently-approved EU legislation on responsible mineral sourcing defines a conflict mineral as tantalum, tin, tungsten or gold which originates from any region in the world affected by, and which is used to finance, armed conflict. Equivalent US provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act includes a wider list of minerals, but limits the conflict area to that of the Central African Great Lakes Region, chiefly the eastern Kivu district of DRC.

One of the many weaknesses of these legislative attempts to reduce the flow of conflict minerals is that they overlook the mining of copper and cobalt mostly carried out in the former Katanga province, located in the south east of DRC. Unlike the Kivu district, armed groups do not operate here. And yet, when it comes to the copper and cobalt mining sector, there are widespread social and human rights abuses. Although not linked to the financing of armed groups, these abuses nevertheless constitute “conflict”.

Père Jacques (right), Criso (left) & artisanal miners

I experienced this situation first hand when I accompanied Père Jacques Nzumbu SJ and his colleague Criso from the Lubumbashi-based Centre Arrupe pour la Recherche & Formation (CARF) on a visit to two small scale mines in the area between Luisha and Kolwezi. The quaint description of these mines as “artisanal” disguises the pernicious reality faced by their workers and their families.

I was shown how artisanal miners descend down a shaft of 30 metres deep and spend up to 10 hours a day tunnelling underground to extract copper and cobalt which is hauled up to the surface in baskets. The conditions underground are hot and workers have rudimentary tools and little or no safety equipment. Tunnels collapsing, underground flooding, and inhalation of dust means that artisanal mining is extremely dangerous. Above ground, life is harsh too. Women and children are often engaged in washing the minerals in nearby lakes. The mining settlements are grim shanty towns with no public provision of services, or schools. Alcoholism and prostitution are rife.

A strange paradox is that both of the artisanal mines we visited sat in the shadow of state-of-art mega-mines owned by international companies. Artisanal mines are often situated in concession areas granted by the Government to the mining companies. But in order to appease local populations, unofficial agreements are made between the companies, government officials, and security forces to turn a blind eye to artisanal mining activity.

The result of such such murky arrangements is that artisanal mining is unregulated and its workers have no protection. And the numbers involved are staggering. It is estimated that up to three million Congolese are engaged in artisanal mining, with a further 8 million being indirectly dependent on the sector. Human rights abuses are worse in artisanal mines controlled by unscrupulous businessmen who exploit men and women desperate to feed their families. Conditions are better where artisanal miners are able to organise themselves into cooperatives.

It is with these artisanal mining cooperatives that CARF is in the process of developing a project. The aim is to provide members of the cooperatives with a free training programme to equip them with knowledge and skills in safety, technical, and regulatory matters. The formation will use an industry-approved software and will be taught through a combination of on-site and online sessions. CARF is also exploring ways of how cooperatives can get a better price for their copper and cobalt which are currently sold to mostly Chinese dealers who pay for the goods well under the market price.

The hideous presence of artisanal mining in DRC is a product of destitution, bad governance, and an insatiable global demand for copper. The latter is only likely to rise in the coming decades with an increase in the use of battery-powered electric vehicles, which contain four times more copper than combustion engine vehicles.

Artisanal mines are here to stay for the foreseeable future. For this reason, CARF aims to improve the lives of artisanal miners by making their conditions safer and offering them training with the hope that they can eventually transition into the larger scale mining sector job market.

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Jesuits against conflict minerals

This week yielded a breakthrough for campaigners against the importation of conflict minerals into the European market.  The EU has finally agreed to introduce legal requirements on companies to check their supply-chains.  Whilst the EU’s proposed regulations are not all advocacy groups like the Jesuit European Social Centre had hoped for, they are at least a start.  Below is a Q&A on the subject.  A bit more background on the Jesuit involvement is available in an article on the Jesuits in Britain website.

EU Conflict Minerals Regulation Q&A

What is the latest?

On 22nd November 2016, the EU issued a text for a proposed law (“regulation”) designed to restrict the importation of so-called “conflict minerals”. This is the fruit of years of campaigning by faith and civil society groups, including JESC. We have joined others in calling for the introduction of legally-binding obligations requiring companies to ensure that imported minerals are not linked to conflict or human rights abuses.

Why is it significant?
For the first time in history, companies will need to carry out checks on the origin of “3TG” minerals, namely tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. 3TGs are vital for a range of everyday consumer items like laptops, mobile phones, engines, and jewellery. Many 3TGs are sourced from regions of the world, especially Central Africa, which are affected by deadly conflicts. A tragic reality is that the trade in minerals often helps finance human
rights violations. The proposed regulation attempts to remedy this situation.

eu-conflictIs it all good news?

Sadly no. The final version of proposed regulation is severely limited in scope and contains a number of loopholes which will blunt its effectiveness. For example, in contrast to the EU Parliament¹s more rigorous draft of 2015 that reflected relevant OECD Guidance, the proposed regulation applies only to imports of raw minerals. Thus companies do not have to carry out checks for components or finished products containing 3TGs. Another weakness is that the regulation¹s provisions only “bite” when certain volume import threshold are reached, meaning that a great number of companies will escape having to comply with the legislation. Further problems arise from the ability for companies to outsource their obligations to certain private industry bodies. Worryingly, inadequate mechanisms exist to scrutinise these industry bodies.boy-digging_400

When happens next?

The proposed regulation will be voted on by the EU Council and Parliament. Once passed, there will be a lengthy “phase in” period before the legislation must be complied with by companies. Early indications suggest the regulations won¹t come into full effect before 2021. So in the meantime, faith and civil society groups will continue to apply pressure on political leaders and business leaders to support further strengthening of measures to combat the trade of conflict minerals regulation.

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