Believe conflict minerals are old news? Think again. 

When many people think of “conflict” or 3TG (tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold) minerals, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2006 film Blood Diamond comes to mind. While the dramatized thriller provided ample entertainment and made a compelling case against 3TGs, in reality, stopping the trade of these metals led to detrimental repercussions. 

Over the past decade, legislation such as the 2010 “Dodd-Frank” in the United States and the EU’s 2020 “European Conflict Minerals Act” cracked down on the exportation of minerals associated with violent extraction in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The goal of these regulations rested in cutting off the financial assets of rebel organizations in order to stop intra-state fighting. However, the conflict is much more complex and ambiguous than international media messages typically portray. 

The decades-old dominant narrative about the DRC depicts the illegal exploitation of minerals as the cause of violence, and the sexual assault of women and girls as a consequence. It suggests that if Western companies cease their procurement of conflict minerals, the dispute will conclude as well. While conflict minerals did play a small role in instigating hostilities, this oversimplified narrative that catalyzed regulation changes in the Global North worsened the situation for local mining communities across the DRC.

As demonstrated by the continuation of bloodshed in the eastern provinces of the Congo, actions of Western governments and consumer-driven corporate social responsibility trends have done little to curtail the violence. While Dodd-Frank and the new EU regulation largely succeeded in curbing the purchase of conflict metals, insurgent groups can still gather funding from a variety of alternative sources such as cannabis, charcoal, hardwoods, and through the taxation of areas they control. Hence, stopping the acquisition of 3TGs had minimal impact on their revenue.

Instead, these laws and supply chain management schemes smothered the livelihood of artisanal miners. The massive boycott of DRC minerals led to the closure of trading posts, known locally as “comptoirs”, that housed many legitimate businesses. Historically, the artisanal mining industry employed hundreds of thousands of families in DRC’s eastern provinces. 

However, the wide-scale closure of business arenas caused a spike in unemployment. To feed their families, men previously engaged in mining turned to militia groups to replace their source of income. This uptake then increased crime in the region, particularly kidnappings for ransom, and created an environment of fear throughout many communities. Thus, laws that sought to subdue violence forced previously uninvolved civilians to engage in acts of corruption. 

Because the media focuses heavily on sexual violence as the principal consequence of the mineral trade, the narrative has turned this type of abuse into an effective bargaining tool for rebel groups. Combatants recognize the hyper-attention sexual violence receives on the world stage and so, to garner political attention and power, they engage in these crimes at increasing rates. With this in mind, humanitarian organizations are acting in response to mainstream media messages by expanding care to survivors of sexual violence while neglecting victims of other forms of abuse such as non-sexual torture, child soldiers and those dealing with familial death. 

So, how should the international community alter its policies to protect artisan miners and local communities? 

The first step is accepting the failure of current regulations. The United States enacted Dodd-Frank twelve years ago, and, although the policy has proven to be fruitless, Washington allows the law to persist. Worse yet, the similar EU law passed in 2020 demonstrates a lack of effective policymaking and little growth on the part of the West of how to address this problem. 

To this point, the EU had substantial time to investigate the impacts of Dodd-Frank and adjust their policies accordingly. Instead, they choose to escalate the boycott of Congolese minerals with little regard to the grassroots-level results. Taking time and effort to properly research other alternatives would demonstrate Global North’s commitment to providing useful foreign policy rather than instituting regulations merely to improve their reputation and adhere to social trends. 

Secondly, the Congolese government should relicense mining land to give artisan workers access to mineral wealth. Conflict emerges because small-scale miners often dig for metals on land contracted to major corporations. Allowing access to industrial sites and establishing regional mining zones would grant artisan miners more economic opportunities, thus alleviating the need for them to encroach on commercial sites. The international community can help by encouraging their companies to engage in industrial-artisan cooperation and meet their legal obligations to support local development.

Thirdly, the global community must take into account the actions of the local populations. The media primarily portrays Congolese citizens as victims; however, community empowerment efforts and local social justice advocates fight for their rights every day. Additionally, the narrative characterizes the West as the actor tasked with “saving” African countries. The failure of Dodd-Frank demonstrates the naivety of this standard. While the Global North’s actions do have impacts in the DRC, Western lawmakers lack a comprehensive understanding of the situation. Any action the United States or EU takes ought to be in conjunction with local groups who have full knowledge of on-the-ground occurrences. This strategy will help alleviate unintended consequences, provide more specialized beneficial responses and ensure local communities retain their agency. 

Finally, media sources and lawmakers must acknowledge the nuance in situations of conflict. While uncomplicated narratives easily attract readers and make Western audiences feel as though they have power in foreign situations, these accounts do not accurately reflect reality and can create dangerous responses. As DiCaprio’s character in Blood Diamond hears, these narratives are like “one of those infomercials with African kids with swollen bellies and flies in their eyes…it might make some people cry if they read it, maybe even write a check. But it’s not going to be enough to make it stop.” 

The international community needs to dig deeper when creating responses and recruit help from local populations directly affected by their decisions. Good intentions are irrelevant in the face of harmful actions. U.S. and EU policymakers need to take a step back and look at the legitimate impacts of their so-called “helpful” policies.  

Leave a Reply