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IRIN | Who pays the hidden price for Congo’s conflict-free minerals?

Valentin was in trouble. His arms were tied behind his back and he couldn’t move. The sun was beating down in the courtyard of the mining company where he and his friends were being held.

The men had been arrested by mining police for peacefully protesting the low price of the coltan ore they had dug out by hand from deep narrow shafts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Western activists have sought to help end violence in Congo by championing conflict-free mineral policies that aim to stop armed groups profiting from the trade. But thousands of miners like Valentin are paying a heavy price. At his mine, Kisengo, a monopoly on clean coltan has kept prices low, reduced revenues, and driven some miners to trade their wares illegally or move into the illicit artisanal gold sector.

A proposed executive order by US President Donald Trump reportedly seeks to cancel those regulatory controls. The draft order, obtained by The Guardian and Intercept, claims to be acting out of concern over “mounting evidence” that instead of preventing minerals from fuelling conflict, these controls are actually causing harm and contributing to instability in the region. On this occasion, Trump may have a point. A months-long IRIN investigation in mineral-rich eastern Congo found that some artisanal mining communities have suffered serious consequences as a result of the new conflict-free rules.

Several thousand self-employed miners work alongside Valentin in the Kisengo mine. Like him, they’re only allowed to sell to a single company. That company, MMR, is a pioneer in the supply of untainted minerals. It has exclusive rights to purchase the entire production of the four main artisanal mines in what was formerly Katanga Province – now four smaller provinces.

“We don’t set prices. We impose them on miners.” That’s how one MMR employee, who asked for anonymity, explained the relationship. Name changed. Although one of MMR’s employees confirmed the arrest of miners, the head office later denied having any knowledge of it.

Good intentionsEmmanuel Freudenthal/IRINArtisanal mining is one of the main sources of livelihoods in eastern Congo.

Like Valentin, some 240,000 miners work with just picks and shovels, under extreme conditions, to extract valuable minerals, among them coltan. The dark metallic ore contains the commercially important element tantalum, which is extracted and used to make key components in mobile phones and almost every other electronic device.

The forests and grasslands where the miners work are crisscrossed by armed militias, whose violence has led to millions of deaths since the 1990s. The motivations of these groups range from local grievances to regional proxy wars. But one thing many of them have in common is that they sustain themselves by taxing the natural resources trade – in particular minerals.In reaction, human rights activists in the United States lobbied for a law, section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed in 2010 and requires publicly listed companies to determine whether their products contain “conflict minerals” produced in Congo.

The new rules provided the impetus for similar legislation in Congo and neighbouring countries. This year, the European Union will have its own version, which will apply worldwide. Whether these efforts have reduced conflict in Congo is hotly debated between activists and academics.

Passed in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2009 to tighten company oversight, Dodd-Frank was hugely unpopular with the Republican Party and is now under general assault by the Trump administration, which reportedly intends to suspend section 1502 for two years.

Keeping it clean

For minerals to remain truly conflict-free, their flow has to be kept separate from tainted materials.It’s a challenge. The mines validated as conflict-free can be just a few hills away from those controlled by armed groups. And the trade is messy, with miners and mineral traders operating independently and constantly on the move across the region. Conflict minerals can easily leak into the supposedly clean supply chains. Emmanuel Freudenthal/IRINA fleck of gold in the palm of a Congolese miner

“If you use the old trading networks… it’s almost impossible to track your minerals,” explained Ken Matthysen, who helped conduct a unique survey of more than 1,600 mines in eastern Congo for the Belgian research institute IPIS.

MMR has been at the forefront of efforts to produce bona fide conflict-free minerals. Its first clients included companies such as Fairphone and Motorola that make a big deal out of sourcing materials responsibly. While other mines have more open access, potentially allowing tainted minerals to leak in, MMR goes to great pains to make sure its production is kept pure, from the shafts all the way to export…

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