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Scheme to stop ‘conflict minerals’ fails to end child labor in DRC, report says

Artisanal miners in Rubaya area, DRC.

Artisanal miners in Rubaya area, DRC. The DRC and Rwanda are the world’s largest exporters of coltan, tin and tungsten, the mining of which is carried out by thousands of artisanal miners. Image courtesy of Global Witness.

  • Much of the world’s supply of coltan, tin and tungsten minerals is extracted using child and forced labor, despite an industry mechanism meant to guarantee responsible supply chains, a new report alleges.
  • The investigation by campaign group Global Witness found major failures in the chain of custody for minerals produced in the provinces of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • The findings, which align with previous investigations by Congolese NGOs and the United Nations, point to large amounts of ore from unvalidated mines entering the supply chain, including from areas known to be under control of militias and rogue army units.
  • The International Tin Supply Chain Initiative says the report is inaccurate and fails to account for progress made in recent years, but has not yet refuted any of the evidence provided.

 

Smelters and manufacturers that use coltan, tin and tungsten in cars, mobile devices and other electronics can’t be sure the minerals have been extracted without using children or forced labor, according to a new report.

And the industry mechanism meant to guarantee responsible supply chains, the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative, has ignored or downplayed failures in the monitoring and chain of custody of mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to report publisher Global Witness.

“The scheme many global companies rely on to stop conflict minerals from entering their supply chains is failing spectacularly,” Alex Kopp, campaigner at the U.K.-based environmental and human rights lobby group, said in a statement.

The International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI) was launched in 2009 by two industry associations, the International Tin Association (ITA) and the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (TIC).

The ITSCI set up a system in which ore from mines that have been inspected and cleared of the use of child or forced labor or operating in areas under the control of militias or out-of-control army units is sealed and labeled by government staff for processing or export.

The initiative’s chain of custody system has been approved by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, but a year-long investigation by Global Witness found that large quantities of minerals from unvalidated mines, including many with militia involvement or child laborers, also enter the ITSCI supply chain for export.

ITSCI tagging site at Kalimbi mine in Nyabibwe, DRC. ITSCI set up a system in which ore from mines that have been validated as free from human rights abuses is sealed and labeled by government staff for processing or export. Image courtesy of Global Witness.

The campaign organization carried out fieldwork in the DRC provinces of  North and South Kivu for six months in 2021, interviewing more than 90 people drawn from government, civil society, academia and business, reviewed video taken by Congolese researchers, and compared their findings with investigations carried out by the U.N. and other NGOs.

The problems they found are illustrated by the situation around the town of Nzibira, in South Kivu. Around 10% of minerals cleared for export from the province by the ITSCI came from Nzibira. But production from ITSCI-validated mines in early 2021 amounted to less than 20% of the 83 metric tons the initiative tagged for export. Miners, officials and traders told Global Witness that most of the ore tagged for export came from unvalidated mines in the wider area around Nzibira — including sites occupied by militias and at least one where children are regularly seen working.

This matched findings by a Congolese NGO, Max Impact, which audited the Nzibira area for the ITSCI in 2016. Max Impact’s consultant found that the validated mines in the sector could not be producing the volumes of minerals attributed to them and that government officials and the ITSCI were ignoring the contamination of the supply chain with ore from elsewhere.

Global Witness found similar problems at other sites across the two Kivu provinces.

The DRC and Rwanda are the world’s largest exporters of coltan (the main ore of tantalum), tin and tungsten, which are used in the manufacture of mobile devices, computers and other electronics, and cars. In addition to the sustained allegations of human rights abuses that prompted the establishment of the ITSCI, mining of these three metals (sometimes collectively referred to as “3T” metals) — carried out by thousands of artisanal miners — is also associated with deforestation, poaching, land degradation, and pollution of water courses with heavy metals.

Global Witness’s researchers traced the 3T minerals from Africa’s Great Lakes region to smelters in Thailand and Malaysia, which then supply refined metal to international brands like Tesla, Apple and Intel. Smelters and their downstream customers are content to rely on monitoring and information about the source of their minerals provided by the ITSCI, but the campaigners say they should instead rely on their own monitoring mechanisms.

Coltan mine on a concession operated by the Société Minière de Bizunzu in North Kivu. Image courtesy Global Witness.

“Companies should identify suppliers in their supply chain, ideally up to the mine, identify risks in their supply chains using a range of different information sources, engage with suppliers in supply chains and use their leverage to mitigate risks,” Kopp told Mongabay. “And they should stop sourcing from suppliers if there is a risk that these are linked to armed conflict and severe human rights abuses.”

In a media release responding to the allegations, the ITSCI said the Global Witness report is inaccurate and lacks “balance.”

“We will be following up with a more in-depth analysis, including to what degree and how our extensive comment to Global Witness during their research has been reflected or considered,” Roper Cleland, the ITSCI program manager, told Mongabay. Cleland added that Global Witness failed to recognize significant and meaningful progress in eliminating abuses in the 3T mineral sector.

Marc Anselme Kamga, an extractive resources governance expert at the Centre for Environment and Development (CED) in Yaoundé, Cameroon, told Mongabay that the Global Witness report points to the need to reform mining governance in Central Africa.

“It is now crucial for transparency in the mining sector in Africa to improve the coherence of strategies, legislation and practices in the mining, land and forestry sectors, in order to guarantee the sustainability of livelihoods and minimize environmental impacts,” he said.

Banner image: Artisanal miners in Rubaya area, DRC. The DRC and Rwanda are the world’s largest exporters of coltan, tin and tungsten, the mining of which is carried out by thousands of artisanal miners. Image courtesy of Global Witness.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Who benefits from resource extraction in DRC? We speak with a journalist and an expert about cobalt mining and palm oil production, listen here:

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