Can Urban Mining Revolutionize Central Africa and its Conflict Minerals?

November 2, 2015


Chaos and mayhem are a common when it comes to conflict minerals - the very same minerals used to power your mobile and home electronics and millions of others like it around the world. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where much of the infighting over conflict minerals occurs, faces hard-won challenges when it comes to curbing the fallout from conflict mineral demand. Militant groups roam seeking control and ultimate domination of mines that house the most precious minerals on earth - some of which wind up in our electronic devices. 

Minerals essential to smartphone and electronics, like gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten, can be found in abundance in the DRC, and as a result, there is also no shortage of greed to accompany the race for control over the lands that contain them. Militants mine the minerals and sell them in clandestine markets for much more than chunk change. The consumer demand for electronics is sharp enough to make the rewards for such black market activity hefty. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars in profits circulate into the hands of DRC militiamen each year. These funds further bankroll the militant, mafia-type activity of the groups and keep the vicious cycle turning, creating a dominant, pillage-for-profit schema in a country where almost 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. 

As you might imagine, the pillaging takes its toll on Central African citizens. Those who find themselves in the crosshairs of the conflict can expect escalated violence to the tune of rape, murder, kidnapping, and other extremely violent atrocities. Militiamen control and tax each mine and smuggle the resources out of the county using violence to intimidate and punish populations over and against competing groups all vying for total domination. 

Add to that the high instances of child soldier recruitment, child labor and child abuse and the ‘conflict’ in conflict minerals becomes shockingly vivid.

What’s Being Done to Counter the Conflict?

The prevailing question is, what’s being done to stop this? Social commentary on the plight of conflict diamonds has garnered considerable attention, but few may be making the necessary connection between smartphones and electronics and conflict minerals - a similar plight. 

Several groups are trying to change that. Nonprofits like Enough, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps raise awareness about the conflict, have launched social awareness campaigns to identify companies around the world that implement conflict mineral certification standards. These encourage consumers to buy exclusively from companies that source minerals from places other than the mines in conflict in the Congo. 

Additionally, legislation is in place to hold electronics manufacturers accountable, particularly in the U.S., but also in Europe, Canada and several African countries, including Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC itself. These laws seek to regulate the mining and distribution of conflict minerals by requiring companies to report and disclose their sources. 

In the U.S, the main conflict minerals law, which was passed under the Dodd-Frank Act, is enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It was enacted in 2010 in response to the escalation of violence surrounding conflict minerals as well as in response to a growing public outcry from political and activist groups around the world. 

As a result, almost all electronics manufacturers in the U.S. have conflict minerals policy in place. However, compliance has proven to be challenging for many. As expected, some in the industry have pushed back with lawsuits claiming the law violates free speech rights. At least one court has ruled part of the Dodd-Frank Act unconstitutional as a result.

Recycling and Urban Mining: Decreasing the Demand for Conflict Minerals

Clearly, the situation needs concrete transformational and sustainable changes in order to break the cycle of destruction taking place in Central Africa. The demand for consumer electronics is definitely not slowing down anytime soon. Innovation in the market is making each device stronger, thinner, lighter and smaller, and the clever use of precious metals and minerals is fueling it all. 

Companies, aware that consumers are willing to pay big prices for the latest electronics, constantly strive to ensure production rates stay in sync with demand. This means mining precious minerals remains a key cog in the wheel of the electronics manufacturing process. 

However, metals and minerals are increasingly difficult and costly to extract, and mining itself is particularly harsh on the environment. In places like the Congo, mining is also a factor in relentless civil war and brutal human rights violations. 

Electronics recycling and urban mining could prove to be a more cost-friendly aide in lessening the problems surrounding conflict minerals and may help chip away at the powerfully tight grip of militiamen in the Congo. 

Electronics recycling puts manufacturers in contact with a large supply of end-of-life electronics with precious minerals still intact and ready for processing. This, linked with urban mining efforts to remove precious minerals and metals on a large scale, could provide a viable, alternative source of precious minerals, taking the focus off of mines in conflicted areas. Of course, such thinking is only fruitful if large scale planners and company execs are willing to see the light, too. 

For now, however, it seems that most in the U.S. are concentrating mainly on compliance with SEC law, and according to reports from Amnesty International and Global Witness, many of America’s companies are failing to do enough to keep conflict minerals out of their products even with regulations in place. Additionally, even though the Dodd-Frank Act has helped reduce revenues to Congo militias in a big way, smuggling is still a major part of the precious minerals global trade. 

Just how much can urban mining contribute to the campaign to end violence over conflict minerals in the Congo? It’s possible that urban mining can decrease reliance on traditional mining at revolutionary rates. E-waste has 40-50 times more concentrated precious metals and minerals than natural ore deposits, and the world scraps 40 million to 45 million tons of e-waste per year. 

With a global approach to sustainable extraction and processing methods, urban mining could put a significant dent in our reliance on traditional mining methods and could quite possibly make a real difference in the conflict regions of central Africa.