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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How the world’s newest Jesuit university is promoting sustainable agriculture

Friends at the Mongata agricultural training centre

Friends at the Mongata

DRC’s abundant natural resources are not only to be found underground. Any new visitor to the country cannot fail to appreciate the land’s rich vegetation and fertile farmland. And yet despite its excellent soil and climatic conditions, DRC needs to import much of its food from neighbouring countries. The agricultural sector is perhaps another victim of the mineral resource curse. Intense focus on exploitation of precious commodities – the quest for Eldorado – has contributed to the lack of interest in developing the nation’s agricultural potential.

Having identified a national agricultural skills deficit, Université Loyola du Congo (ULC) has sought to create a centre of excellence for sustainability and food security. Instituted only last year, ULC is the world’s newest Jesuit university. Its Centre de Recherche et de Communication pour le Développement Durable (CERED), which is part of the University’s Faculté des sciences Agronomiques et vétérinaires, has developed a multidisciplinary programme for a diverse range of stakeholders that includes researchers, students, and local communities.

I travelled to ULC’s home in Kimwenza, a southern district of Kinshasa, to meet CERED’s director, Ghislain Tshikendwa Matadi SJ. Pére Ghislain’s vision is to develop a centre bringing together natural and social sciences, which puts the welfare of people at the core of its research and educational formation. As superior of a fledging community of Jesuit scholastics located on-site in ULC campus, his first mission is to conscientize young minds in the Society of Jesus in the mission of the Society including issues relating to sustainability. Having spent an evening with these impressive young Congolese Jesuits, who articulately explained the situation in DRC to me, I realise Pére Ghislain’s influence begins at home!

            Pére Ghislain (left) & Emmanuel

The next day I accompanied Ghislain to CERED’s agroforestry centre and agricultural training centre in Mongata, on the Batéké Plateau, 165km from Kinshasa. The Mongata project began a number of years ago when Pére Ghislain coordinated the planting of trees on 4200 hectares of savanna. The plantation which mostly consists of Acacia trees is now well established and is managed by local people. Mongata also acts as a meteorological station for measuring the impact of climate change, and has a bee-keeping project which draws on the techniques of local traditions and wisdom.

On the journey out of kinshasa, two things struck me powerfully. First was the dire state of the roads. Any driver must skilfully dodge enormous potholes, traverse mud-pits and small ponds, and carefully navigate around a plethora of broken down trucks.  The vast revenues from the mining industry are clearly not finding their way into improvements for DRC’s basic infrastructure. The other thing the road trip made me painfully aware of was the relentless sliver of slum developments alongside the road, inhabited by a population existing in dire poverty and desperate for work.

Entering the peaceful countryside outside Mongata, I wondered why so many flee to the big cities from such a rural idil. Passing through villages however, I realised that the poverty of countryside-dwellers was just as acute as in Kinshasa. I noticed too that there was little evidence of agricultural infrastructure or employment.

When we arrived at Mongata in the early evening, a group of local farmers, which included the village chief, had gathered. They were here, apparently to welcome me, but also for formation session led by Ghislain and CERED staff member Emmanuel Mwanangulu. After a presentation on the idea of establishing a cooperative at Mongata to strengthen the position of the community in purchasing and selling, a lively discussion ensued in a mix of French and Lingala. A meal of maize, chicken and legumes followed, and the local men seemed happy to have the opportunity to chat with each other. Then they went off, mostly by foot, some by motorcycles.

My experience at Mongata called to mind the aspect of Laudato Si which encourages investment in local rural economies. Pére Ghislain’s work embodies the guidance and encouragement of Pope Francis when he says: New forms of cooperation and community organisation can be encouraged in order to defend the interests of small producers and preserve local ecosystems from destruction. Truly, much can be done! (para 180).

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Reactions to Trump & Central African ecclesial networking

Last month, Donald Trump indicated that he intended to issue an executive order repealing section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, a provision enacted by the Obama Administration aimed at preventing the importation of conflict minerals into the US.

Henri Muhiya of CERN

What do civil society leaders make of this in Kinshasa?

I put this question to Henri Muhiya of the Commission Episcopale pour les Ressources Naturelles (CERN). CERN is supported by the DRC Bishops’ Conference and promotes a sustainable use of DRC’s natural resources. Its vision is that resources are used in a way that cause the least harm to the environment and protects human dignity.

Henri greatly fears the potential damage of Trump’s proposed action. He believes that the absence of US law covering supply chains of minerals from conflict areas is likely to benefit armed groups in Eastern DRC. This will lead to an escalation of violence in the region. Armed groups exploit illegal “artensenal” mines whose workforce consist of men, women and very often children, who are driven by poverty to work in appalling conditions. Henri points out that the knock-on effect of an increase in conflict, an influx of unregulated mining, and resulting political instability creates a situation which deters new commercial investment into an already troubled region. Companies who might have previously mined in a responsible manner, opt not to invest in infrastructure for the area.

These points were echoed by other DRC-based networks who were keen to emphasise that European countries must now redouble their efforts to effectively implement the conflict mineral legislation recently approved in Brussels.

Henri Muhiya also spoke about CERN’s role in a new pan-central Africa ecclesial network for safeguarding the Congo Basin called REBAC. Modelled on an equivalent network that exists in South America for the Amazon region, REBAC builds on paragraph 38 of Laudato Si which states the imperative of preserving the Amazon and Congo regions since they are “lungs” for the planet.

REBAC’s aim is to protect the Congo Basin

With the aim of providing a platform for coordination and strength among communities belonging to various countries in central Africa, REBAC also reflects Laudato Si’s central message of the need for an integral approach to development that transcends national boundaries and interests. Henri explained that one of the present challenges for REBAC is to get Rwanda and Burundi involved in the network.

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Reforming DRC’s Mining Code? CEPAS Kinshasa

The devil hides in the details, but very often he also lies low in the lack of detail. This is the situation regarding the laws and guidance governing the mining sector in DRC, which are weak and ineffective from the point of view of human rights, environmental protection and the common good. Recognising that a robust domestic legal framework is essential to bring about a fairer and more transparent mining industry, Jesuits and their partners have been involved in proposals to reform DRC’s mining laws.

Henry with CEPAS director Alain Nzadi SJ

Henry with CEPAS director Alain Nzadi SJ

The Centre d’Etudes Pour l’Action Sociale (CEPAS) is a Kinshasa-based project of the Jesuit Central Africa Province. Its basic mission is to promote integral human development through research and analysis.

By organising conferences, workshops and publications, CEPAS provides a platform for an honest exchange between civil society and DRC’s decision-makers. An example of this activity was its les journées sociales, which took place last week. This programme brought together members of various organisations, and CEPAS’s director Pére Alain Nzadi SJ welcomed Aubin Minaku, president of the State National Assembly, who gave a lecture on democracy and the public’s perception of the state.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 13.21.39In addition to its publication of Congo-Afrique, a journal exploring economic, political and cultural topics, CEPAS produces studies and policy papers on a variety of issues. A subject CEPAS has devoted a lot of energy to over recent years is the reform of DRC’s mining laws. A decade ago, under the leadership former director Pére Ferdinand Muhigirwa SJ, CEPAS helped initiate a review of the DRC’s “Mining Code”, the corpus of laws and guidance regulating the mining sector.

Part of this work has been to scrutinise existing mining concessions by reviewing contracts with mining operators. Synthesising the outcome of research and dialogue with stakeholders, CEPAS has also put forward legislative revisions to make the Mining Code better able to respond to human rights violations, environmental protection, and a fairer distribution of revenue derived from mining projects. Most recently, in October 2016, CEPAS staff member Patrick Mavingo coordinated the publication of 12 raisons de soutenir le projet de modifiant et complément le Code minier de 2002.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 13.29.27Sadly the legislative project to revise the Mining Code has stalled, and it is unlikely to be put before the DRC Parliament within the foreseeable future. A powerful mining lobby which profits from the currently feeble Mining Code has from the outset fiercely resisted any reform proposals. At the same time, widespread political corruption and links between politicians and mining interests have compounded an already lethargic response of the Kabila government to instigate and pursue reform. Present political instability and imminent budgetary and electoral crises have further overshadowed the mining issue on the legislative agenda.

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