Apple, Tesla, Intel could be using conflict minerals due to faulty scheme

The scheme many global companies rely on to stop conflict minerals from entering their supply chains is “failing spectacularly”, says Global Witness. (Image courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev | Enough Project.)

Several of the world’s largest companies including Apple, Tesla and Intel may be using conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in their products as they rely on a certification scheme accused of helping “launder” irresponsibly mined metals.

According to the latest report from Global Witness, an international non-profit that challenges power abuses, several firms that use the International Tin Association’s Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI) scheme are allegedly at fault of fueling conflict.

The ITSCI program, launched after the 2010 Dodd Frank legislation, requires US companies to vet their supply chains to avoid using minerals tied to human rights abuse and guerillas.

Global Witness’ report suggests the scheme is not fulfilling its mission as its researchers gathered “compelling evidence” of ITSCI enabling the laundering of ore from mines controlled by militia or using child labour.

The same certification has allowed the trafficking of conflict minerals, used to finance armed clashes, according to Global Witness.

In one mining area, Nzibira, the investigation found that up to 90% of minerals introduced into ITSCI during the first quarter of 2021 did not come from operations certified as meeting security and human rights standards.

Worsening the problem, Global Witness said, a significant portion of those minerals were linked to conflict and human rights abuses. A similar situation was detected at another ten locations.

The evidence suggests that the scheme many global companies rely on to stop conflict minerals from entering their supply chains is “failing spectacularly”, Alex Kopp, campaigner at Global Witness, said in a statement.

The report claims ITSCI has downplayed and ignored these issues, as it is run by two powerful tin and tantalum associations — the International Tin Association (ITA) and the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (TIC).

Both organizations represent many of the major buyers of the “3T” minerals — tin, tantalum and tungsten in the region, the study says.

“As long as ITSCI is overseen by those who stand to gain from access to tin, tantalum or tungsten, it will continue to fail,” Kopp said.

This is not the first time top tech companies are said to be linked to conflict minerals. Five of the world’s largest — Tesla, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Dell — were singled out in December in a lawsuit accusing them of being complicit in the death of children in Africa forced to mine cobalt.

More than 40 million people have been estimated to be captive in modern slavery, which includes forced labor and forced marriage, according to Walk Free and the International Labour Organization.

In response to questions from Global Witness, ITSCI denied any supply contamination as well as links to armed conflict and child labour.

Electric vehicles giant Tesla and other market actors are involved in testing alternative schemes, such as Re|Source, a solution to trace responsibly produced minerals from mine to EVs. Volkswagen is also working on improving working conditions in the mines in the DRC.

Trading house Trafigura inked last year a supply deal with Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC), a new DRC-owned company, created to help control artisanal supplies and boost government revenue through price controls. 

Time to dig deeper

Evidence gathered by Global Witness also suggests that Swiss businessman Chris Huber, who is under criminal investigation for war crimes in DRC, used the ITSCI scheme to launder smuggled minerals through at least three companies based in Rwanda.

Businesses linked to him and his partner, former TIC president John Crawley, also appear to profit from hundreds of tonnes of trafficked coltan, which are likely laundered through ITSCI in Rubaya area in the DRC, the report says.

Over the past two years, some mining companies have abandoned ITSCI and joined other certification schemes, such as the Better Sourcing programme, which was implemented by responsible-sourcing group RCS Global.

When leaving ITSCI in 2019, Congolese coltan miner Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB) complained about ITSCI raising costs.

Other companies have also complained about the scheme’s increasingly burdensome costs, but haven’t abandoned it as they worry they will not be able to sell their minerals without the certification.

Pressure on ITSCI to lower costs has increased in the past two years with the surge of responsible sourcing alternatives seeking to use blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrency bitcoin, to help to track minerals and guarantee they are clean.

The extraction of other metals, particularly of cobalt, in the DRC has been linked to human rights abuses, corruption, environmental destruction and child labour.