In search of conflict-free tin from the Congo

Guest commentary by Mike Loch
February 12, 2013

This is a guest commentary by Mike Loch, the Director of Supply Chain Sustainability at Motorola Solutions. Loch is on traveling in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of Motorola's effort to source conflict-free materials from the war-torn country. Mongabay.com is running this post as part of a new series on corporate efforts to develop more socially and environmentally sustainable supply chains.

I am excited to be returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this weekend. My previous visit in January and February of last year was with a delegation aiming to analyze and audit the first conflict-free supply of tantalum from the DRC via the Solutions for Hope “closed pipe” project. The success of Solutions for Hope, which Motorola Solutions helped to found with AVX, proved that it is possible to source minerals from the DRC through a secure, traceable chain of custody from mine to smelter. This trip extends from that work with the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI).

Tantalum is one of four minerals identified as a source of funding for a brutal civil war in the DRC. Armed groups control some of the mines and transport routes in the North and South Kivu provinces and extort money during transport across this vast country. The other three conflict minerals are tin, tungsten and gold. The main aim of this trip is to assess a pilot project that supplies conflict-free tin from a conflict region in a similar approach to the Solutions for Hope project.

Some people might question why a company would engage in a region with such a complex situation as a civil war in Africa when it would be much easier simply to source the minerals we need from a different country. It only takes one visit to the DRC to answer that question. The country is beautiful, rich in resources and the people are charming and welcoming. But poverty is extreme with 70 percent of the population at or below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, with millions of people caught up in human rights abuses due to the civil war. It is just appalling that given the DRC’s natural resource wealth that the level of poverty exist. It is important to the economic survival of the people and the future stability of the country that businesses continue to purchase minerals from the DRC, but do so in a way that ensures revenues do not reach the armed groups but are used to reinvest in the local economy and infrastructure.

In the U.S., The Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to disclose any potential sources of conflict minerals in their products by 2014. The unintended consequence of this legislation could be a ‘de facto’ embargo -- a large-scale withdrawal of trade from the DRC unless a reliable supply of minerals assured as being conflict free is established. That’s why it is so important that we focus on this now.

North Kivu, DRC. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Objectives of this trip
This trip, organized by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, includes delegates from companies, including Motorola Solutions, industry organizations, governmental organizations and NGOs. We will visit and assess the Kalimbi mine in South Kivu province that has previously been identified as a green site, i.e. free from conflict, by a multi-stakeholder group. This was also verified by the NGO Pact, the implementing partner of the regional traceability program iTSCi.

Although not a formal audit, we have an experienced team who will look closely at the conditions of the miners and the chain of custody for ensuring the material will not be intermingled with conflict minerals from outside. Mines controlled by militia groups have poor health and safety precautions and frequently use child labor. It’s a condition of our involvement with a conflict-free mine that health and safety is addressed, there is no child labor and local education and healthcare facilities benefit from our involvement in the area. We want to see the provisions for community investment from the revenue the mine earns.

In addition to the mine operators we will meet local and provincial government officials and local NGOs. It’s essential that the project is widely recognized and supported to minimize the risk of interference and to provide assurance that the system is credible and reliable. We will also be assessing the scalability of the project because the current tin exports from DRC had been estimated to have declined by approximately 80 percent from the Kivu’s due to the lack of a credible system that could validate the material as conflict free.

It’s an honor to be involved in such significant work, and I am incredibly proud that my company is one of the active supporters. Provided I can get an internet connection, I plan to report progress live from the DRC next week on the Motorola Solutions blog.

2/15/13 - Day 1 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

I am part of a delegation from the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) whose mission is to establish a source of conflict-free tin from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The trip began not in the DRC but in Kigali, Rwanda, where I met miners and traders. Currently, minerals from the DRC leak across its borders to other countries, where their origin is disguised and they are sold as conflict free. This is a major issue flagged by the United Nations. To establish a viable conflict-free mining sector in the DRC the cross-border smuggling must be shut down. Government and industry actors need to support programs to verify the origin of all material exported from countries such as Rwanda so that these materials can legitimately enter the global mineral supply chain.

Arriving in the DRC, our eclectic multi-stakeholder delegation from the CFTI met the South Kivu Governor and Chief of Staff to the Minister of Mines. The meeting with the Chief of Staff appropriately took place in the Nyabibwe meeting room at the South Kivu Geology Museum in Bukavu. Nyabibwe is the town where the Kalimibi mine is located. It was rewarding to hear that prior to the start of the CFTI there was almost nothing being mined due to the “de facto” embargo; however, our efforts have begun to change that.

The Kalimbi mine started conflict-free production in October 2012 and has produced more than 273 tons of tin ore, all of which was tagged and bagged to protect it from tampering. This material has been exported raising approximately $1.7 million USD for the local economy and nothing for armed groups. The enterprise is viewed as a total success by the locals and has given the people joy and hope, something that we in the United States may not associate with a mine in our back yard. They realize its importance to South Kivu and are committed to protecting it.

The governor of South Kivu hosted our meeting at his residence. It was refreshing to hear him articulate some of the problems regarding their minerals trade including the DRC army, smuggling of minerals into Rwanda, and child labor at the mine sites. We explained our prime reason for participating in the CFTI is to provide a legitimate livelihood for the Congolese people. We also tried to communicate the risks to companies associated with continuing to source from the DRC given the requirements of Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act and broad public concern.

Confidence in conflict-free sourcing will lead to expansion of the market for DRC minerals and more certified mines throughout the region. Based on the discussions we had, the issues and potential benefits are understood. The skeptic in me is not convinced that the importance of diligent execution is appreciated nor the consequences of a major failure. A full-scale withdrawal of mineral trade with the DRC is still a possibility.

So that was another learning experience in Africa. I sincerely hope we have influenced thinking here.

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Guest commentary by Mike Loch (February 12, 2013).

In search of conflict-free tin from the Congo.