Conflict Minerals

A man stands in a pool of water in a gold mine on Feb. 23, 2009, in Chudja, near Bunia, northeastern Congo. (Photo: Lionel Healing/ AFP-Getty Images)

First there were "blood diamonds," the gems that fueled conflict and human rights abuses in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Then there was "conflict cocoa," the chocolate source that's harvested by children and funds civil war in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Now concern is rising about the minerals that go into common consumer electronics.

Countries rich in minerals such as cobalt, coltan, cassiterite, copper and gold are often marred by corruption, authoritarian repression, militarization and civil war. Rebel groups, governments and mining companies exploit mineral resources, fuelling civil and interstate conflict as players vie for control over riches.

Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DROC), previously known as Zaire, have fallen victim to rebels who use revenue from minerals such as coltan and cassiterite to purchase arms and fuel conflict. Governments often establish repressive military regimes in mineral producing regions to protect their "national interests," but local populations rarely see the profits and are subjected to environmental damage wrought by corporations.

DROC is immensely rich in natural resources and is thought to be the wealthiest country on earth in regards to natural resources. Current patterns of resource extraction have, however, severely compounded the nation’s troubles. The consumer electronics industry is the largest end user of the minerals that are fueling the fighting in eastern DROC.

In DROC, many people—especially young children and women—are suffering at the hands of armed groups who are trying to make a profit from mining "conflict minerals."

According to a recent U.N. report, the mainly Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda continue to exploit gold and cassiterite in North and South Kivu provinces in DROC with the help of trading networks in Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates, while irregular arms deliveries have come from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Sudan.

The rebels also get weapons leaked to them from the army itself while the rebel Diaspora abroad, particularly in Europe, coordinates fundraising and operations. The factions—which include a mix of renegade Congolese army troops, Rwanda-influenced Tutsi rebels and fugitive Hutu fighters from the 1994 Rwandan genocide—control mines that generate an estimated $144 million to $218 million each.

A campaign is growing in the United States to end wars and atrocities in eastern DROC by discouraging the export of conflict minerals. In May 2009, U.S. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009. The Act calls on the United States to support multilateral efforts to investigate, monitor and stop activities involving natural resources that contribute to illegally armed groups and human rights violations in eastern Congo.

The bill also would require that the State Department closely monitor the financing of armed groups in mineral-rich areas of eastern Congo. Under the legislation, U.S.-registered companies selling products using columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, wolframite or derivatives of these minerals would be required to annually disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission the country of origin of those minerals. If the country is DROC or neighboring countries, the company would need to disclose the mine of origin.

If passed into law, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act will give consumers the choice to purchase conflict-free electronics products.

Regarding eastern DROC, Senator Durbin said, "Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world, simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer. We ought to do all we can to make sure that the products we use and the minerals we import, in no way support those who violate human rights abroad."

The United Nations estimates that 200,000 women have been raped, and the armed factions still active in the country's east have used children for mining, fighting and other work, according to Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and others. U.S. officials and rights groups say militias in eastern DROC are forcing villagers to extract the minerals, and that profits from their sale help purchase weapons used in ongoing violence.

The Obama administration is pressing American industries to end the use of conflict minerals that are fueling ongoing violence in eastern DROC. At a meeting at the State Department on May 14, U.S. officials met with executives from electronics, automotive and other companies whose products contain tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold. These minerals are often illicitly mined in the conflict zone. The department said they discussed ways to ensure the company’s products do not contain conflict minerals.

After the U.S. senate’s move to stem the flow of money from mineral mines fuelling the brutal civil war in DROC, the watchdog group Global Witness (GW) is calling on Europe to follow suit. According to GW, armed groups control much of the mineral trade in eastern DROC. These armed groups profit from the multi-million-dollar mineral trade by forcibly controlling the mines and exacting bribes or taxes. Those buying the conflict minerals include companies based in E.U. member states.

Minerals from eastern DROC are shipped mainly to middlemen in Malaysia, Thailand, China and India, and there's no certification system for minerals from the region. Human rights activists have long called attention to how conflict minerals are sold to purchase arms by rebel groups that regularly commit horrific abuses against civilian populations, including mass murder, rape, torture and forced recruitment.

Some experts are suggesting an adapted "Kimberley model," similar to the one regarding diamonds, while others think that it is unlikely that international legal measures would make a contribution to the fight against illegal exploitation of minerals.

Simply avoiding minerals from the region isn't perfect either, both because rebels profit from other sources, like charcoal sales and bribery, and because legitimately mined minerals are a critical economic driver for the region. Coltan and Bauxite in particular are two prized resources that are fraught with conflict.

Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore that contains elements used in cell phones, is mined in DROC's war-ravaged Kivu region. The United Nations estimates the DROC made $750 million worth of profits from coltan between 2000 and 2004.

The 13-year-old civil conflict, which has so far claimed 5 million lives and pulled in armies from Rwanda and Uganda, is essentially a resource war over the DROC's minerals: vast reserves of diamonds, gold, tungsten, tin, and coltan. There have also been 200,000 recorded cases of sexual violence against women and girls, not to mention the destruction of one of the world's most endangered rain forests.

The West African republic of Guinea is the world's primary supplier of bauxite ore, used to make the aluminum that goes in everything from soda cans to airplanes. Twenty percent of Guinea's GDP, or $857 million a year, comes from its bauxite-dominated mining industry. A Chinese firm recently agreed to invest $7 billion in Guinean infrastructure in return for mining rights.

The bauxite bounty has not trickled down to the 70 percent of Guineans living in poverty, though mining companies are technically supposed to pay development taxes to their local communities. Meanwhile, bauxite revenues have enabled the military junta to consolidate power and ignore international sanctions.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.