So the US government decided to sneak a rider into the Financial Reform Bill in an attempt to address the issue of conflict minerals coming out of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The goal is to dry up revenue that fuels rebel fighting in the region. As I mentioned in Part I last week, while clearly a noble effort on the US government’s part (along with help read: lobbying from various advocacy groups) in attempt to subdue this conflict and perhaps create a more informed American consumer, the bill may not actually address the issue that it is intended to.
However, there are other concerns with this bill as well. Historically, the sale of natural resources has often fueled conflict and just as often the origins of the resources have been extremely difficult to determine. Of course, were we talking about oil, the supply chain is much shorter and easier to comprehend than the manner in which minerals such as the 3Ts (tantalum, tin and tungsten) end up in your cell phone.
Tantalum itself goes through a number of complex steps and in order to be used in a finished consumer product and the final product barely resembles what was dug out of the mine. According to Cabot (one of the only mineral manufacturing companies in the US that deals in these materials), much of the world’s tantalum comes from easier to regulate industrial mines in Australia (32% of world total) and Canada. Artisinal mines, which exist in DRC are much more difficult to regulate and trace. The company lists at least 7 members of the supply chain although in some instances there are many more. Because almost all of the intermediate processing (the point when the product is most likely unable to be traced) is done in China companies such as Apple have little recourse, outside of, perhaps, pressuring their intermediaries.
That’s not to say consumer electronic companies should not be held responsible. A German-Congo collaboration, BGR is working on a certification process along with ITRI (Tin Supply Chain Initiative) and a group from the World Bank, Department for International Development and Congolese Ministry of Mines is addressing social and economic concerns. The goal obviously being to improve the situation of the local population and make it easier for companies to understand their products.
Unfortunately, the issue returns to lack of government involvement in the region. This means not only regulation shortcomings for the mining industry, but the problem of providing basic services to the public (like electricity and safety). Although, time will tell what impact if any, the new bill has on conflict in the region, it’s unlikely that a flat-out boycott of minerals will do anything to move the possibility of peace forward, no matter what US advocacy groups would like you to think.