This is how the Congo supplies ‘conflict minerals’ to the IT world

This is how the Congo supply 'conflict minerals' to the IT world

National Geographic describes miners in Congo as “an antlike army expending millions of calories and gallons of sweat to feed a vast and distant global industry”.

If you are reading this on a tabloid or a smartphone, then you are likely holding bits of so-called “conflict minerals,” mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where National Geographic travelled recently to investigate the current state of the country’s mineral trade.

In the October 125th Anniversary issue of the magazine, Jeffrey Gettleman and photographer Marcus Bleasdale document the horrifying conditions under which the country’s miners still work to produce near half of the world’s supply of tantalum, as well as an important amount tin ore, tungsten, gold and dozens of other minerals used in today’s most popular electronics.

Described by Bleasdale as “an antlike army expending millions of calories and gallons of sweat to feed a vast and distant global industry,” the majority of these people work for militia groups that still control most of the country’s mines.

Unlike legitimate countries that export tantalum, the Congo is a nation dominated by warlords who slaughter innocent people in order to take land that is rich in highly demanded minerals, including cobalt, gold diamonds, copper and tin.

For much of the past decade, cheap supplies of tantalum, derived from these mines have flowed into a long and complex supply chain, involving infamous groups, such as the Hutu militia associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

U.S. intervention

In an effort to curb the imports of tainted minerals from the beleaguered African country, the US and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) passed last year a set of strict rules requiring manufacturers to report from where they get its tantalum, tin, gold or tungsten. It also forces companies to disclose payments made to overseas governments to develop natural gas.

While the ruling goes into effect in 2014, more than a third of US firms are absolutely unprepared to adopt it, revealed a poll conducted in April during the IHS webinar “The Clock’s Ticking: How to Comply with the New Conflict Minerals Regulations.”

What’s more, the US biggest manufacturing trade groups — the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable— began an ongoing court battle against the SEC, aimed to stop the rule from taking effect.

In late July, Judge Robert L. Wilkins decided to upheld the SEC’s rule, to which the US companies replied by filing this month a brief that includes pretty much the same arguments defeated earlier in the year.

The upcoming verdict, expected anytime this fall, will determine whether US firms can use conflict minerals without telling consumers and investors what is the nature of the electronic components used in the next best-seller tabloid or smartphone.

Images from “Conflict Gold 101” video/Courtesy of ENOUGHproject.