Report finds failures in due diligence of African ‘conflict minerals’ used in computers and cellphones

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A girl carries a container of water at a coltan mine in Kamatare, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Dec. 1, 2018.

Many of the world’s computers and cellphones are likely to be tainted by “conflict minerals” from Congolese mines where abusive militias and child labour are common, because of failures in a much-touted system of tagging and verifying minerals in the Central African supply chain, a new report says.

The report by British-based environmental research group Global Witness, to be released on Wednesday, alleges that the tagging-and-tracing scheme has become a way for traders to launder their tainted minerals and legitimize smuggling networks. Evidence of corruption or fraud in the tagging system, which was designed to ensure supply has been ethically sourced, has been ignored by agents and officials in the system, the report says.

The report reinforces the conclusions of other researchers, including United Nations experts, who have uncovered evidence of sophisticated mineral-smuggling networks in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Companies such as Apple Inc. and Intel Corp. are dependent on due-diligence systems to verify the minerals in their supply chains. The schemes were created after growing controversy over “conflict minerals” or “blood minerals” – tin, tantalum and tungsten that originate from mines controlled by armed groups, where violence or human rights violations are common. Consumer companies were worried they would face damaging boycotts of their products if they failed to use due-diligence systems.

The most widely used scheme is the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI), created in 2009 by the International Tin Association and later joined by the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center. Under this program, government agents seal and tag minerals to validate that they are unconnected to militia-controlled mines or child labour.

But large amounts of minerals from unvalidated mines are entering the ITSCI supply chain and are then exported, according to the Global Witness report, which is based on field research in more than 10 mining areas in eastern Congo and interviews with more than 90 people in government, industry, academia and civil society groups.

It cited the region around Nzibira, in Congo’s South Kivu province. Of the 83 tonnes of minerals tagged in that sector in the first quarter of last year, less than 20 per cent were produced by validated mines, it said. Some of the minerals came from a mine “where a militia has used violence against the local population and forced miners to work unpaid,” the report said.

Global Witness said it found similar problems in many other locations, and it said the incidents were often ignored or downplayed by ITSCI officials. The ITSCI system is “failing spectacularly,” said Alex Kopp, a campaigner at Global Witness, in a statement accompanying the report.

The due diligence system has conflict-of-interest issues because some of those involved in the system are major buyers of minerals from the region, the report said. It said the system has laundered smuggled minerals for companies linked to two British businessmen and a Swiss businessman. (The businessmen have denied any involvement in the smuggling of minerals.)

“A due diligence system is doomed to fail when powerful vested interests are calling the shots,” Mr. Kopp said. “As long as ITSCI is overseen by those who stand to gain from access to tin, tantalum or tungsten, it will continue to fail.”


Officials at the ITSCI program said the Global Witness conclusions are incorrect. The program has a “credible and valuable role” in responsible mineral sourcing, said ITSCI program manager Roper Cleland.

“We disagree with the allegation that large percentages of minerals originate from mines where child labour is present or militia are in control,” Ms. Cleland said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

“We do not believe there is credible evidence to support such a comment,” she said. “As a program we do not tolerate deliberate misuse of the ITSCI system or laundering of smuggled minerals.”

Last year, she said, a “high number” of incidents – about 1,300 in total – were reported at ITSCI mine sites, including allegations about the presence of children or armed groups. But this is unsurprising since ITSCI operates in conflict-affected areas, and these incidents would probably never have been reported or resolved before the program’s creation, Ms. Cleland said.

She also denied the conflict-of-interest allegation. “It is in the interests of all stakeholders to ensure that the ITSCI system credibly and accurately identifies and addresses risks to support responsible sourcing.”

Independent researchers, however, have found that mineral smuggling is flourishing in Congo and Rwanda, despite the due diligence systems. A report last year by a UN expert panel found evidence that minerals from Congo – including from militia-controlled mines – were trafficked across the border to Rwanda.

Hester Postma, a researcher at the University of Antwerp who has studied the due diligence systems for conflict minerals, questioned whether the mineral tagging is achieving its goals. “There’s very little scientific evidence that anything has really changed on the ground,” she told The Globe in an interview.

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