The rich mineral mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo supply valuable minerals to the tech industry, but they come at a deadly cost that is finally being faced.
Photographs by Fiona Lloyd-Davies (supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) | Additional reporting by Toby Wolpe
"The conditions were inhuman. The armed groups saw themselves as outside the law — no one could control them."
Axel Mutia Mburano is describing life in a mine in the Walikale region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a central African country gripped by conflicts that have killed more than 5.4 million people since 1998.
The money that helped prolong the suffering of Mburano and his countrymen flowed from the likes of you, me, and just about anyone else who bought a PC, phone, or electronic gadget in recent memory.
Inside many of these electronic devices are components that began life as minerals dug at gunpoint from mines in the DRC.
'There were no rules'
Mburano's story reflects the misery that war and mineral wealth has brought to the DRC. At the mine he worked alongside about 15,000 others, digging for the mineral cassiterite and panning for gold in a nearby river. But after an armed militia seized control of the mine in 2008, working conditions descended into what Mburano describes as "slavery."
"Sometimes people worked 24 hours out of 24, night and day, using head-mounted lamps — one team working days and one doing nights. At the time there were no rules, and sometimes miners died of fatigue. There were also deaths because the pits were deep and there was flooding," said Mburano.
"We were in a really isolated quarry that made transporting the minerals to the Walikale distribution centre very hard. It was more than 50-km away, so the minerals had to be carried on men's backs — and even women and children were used, too.
"The armed groups saw themselves as being outside the law, so there were a lot of thefts and sometimes rapes because no one could control them."
Countless Congolese have endured similar hardships to Mburano in mines across Eastern DRC. Their suffering has been at the hands of Hutu and Tutsi fighters, and corrupt officers within the Congolese army, who have seen the mines as a way of funding the armed conflict that has raged sporadically in the country since 1998.
The minerals from the DRC's mines have changed hands innumerable times on their journey to our PCs and phones. After being dug up in central Africa the minerals travel through a long and snaking chain of suppliers, travelling to Asia and elsewhere to be smelted into metals and then onto the wider world where they end up in electronics, as well in vehicles and jewellery.
The complexity and length of that supply chain is such that for years electronics firms claimed it was opaque, that determining whether their products were perpetuating a cycle of killings and rape in the DRC was an insurmountable task, both financially and logistically.
Today attitudes are changing as companies prepare to face up to the requirements of new legislation requiring them to track these minerals right back to the mine they were dug.
Companies registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will have to disclose the use of conflict minerals sourced from the DRC or its neighbouring countries in their products under section 1502 of the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (PDF). Companies must file their first reports with the SEC by the end of May 2014.
If firms find that the minerals do originate from the DRC or an adjoining country, they are required to report on their efforts to determine the mine or location of origin to ensure that armed groups are not benefiting from the trade of these minerals.
By shining a spotlight on electronics manufacturers' supply chains, legislators are hoping to pressure companies to invest in removing conflict minerals from their products.
But while major US-registered electronics firms are outwardly pledging to end the use of conflict minerals some of these same firms belong to industry associations that are seeking to water down the disclosure requirements under Dodd-Frank.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers have mounted a legal challenge to the obligations, which is being considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The group is seeking to overturn the disclosure requirement and have it rewritten in a less strict form. They argue that it imposes too many costs, goes beyond congressional intent, and violates First Amendment freedoms by forcing companies to condemn their own products. The challenge won some sympathy with one of the judges at a hearing in January 2014, who raised the prospect of the requirement creating a "slippery slope problem" in relation to US companies having to disclose the conditions under which their products are manufactured overseas. The judges have yet to indicate when they will make a ruling on the challenge.
Some electronics manufacturers, such as Microsoft and Motorola, have distanced themselves from this legal challenge.
The European Commission is also considering implementing a voluntary scheme under which European Union (EU)-registered smelters selling materials derived from minerals from the DRC and other conflict zones worldwide could be certified as conflict-free. The proposal has been attacked as "weak," and a disappointment to campaigners who found the majority of EU companies not required to comply with Dodd-Frank have done minimal work to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain.
Cleaning up the tech industry
The three main conflict minerals are cassiterite, Coltan, and wolframite, sometimes referred to under the acronym 3T, a reference to the tin, tantalum, and tungsten metals derived from them. The fourth conflict material is gold.
The majority of US-registered computer component and PC manufacturers are currently attempting to document their supply chains and remove conflict minerals via the Conflict-Free Smelter Program (CFSP). The programme is run by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, an electronics industry body that works to make supply chains more socially, environmentally, and economically friendly, and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).
Major electronics firms among the more than 120 companies participating in the CFSP include:
Many of the large electronics firms are also engaged in their own private efforts to clean up their supply chains. Although progress varies, Intel made headlines when it pledged that no conflict minerals will be used to manufacture its microprocessors as of January 2014. The company travelled more than 250,000 miles to visit more than 80 smelters in 21 countries to verify its microprocessor supply chain is conflict free, and is working with partners in the CFSP.
Under the CFSP, which is part of the wider Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI), a whitelist is being built of smelters and refiners that don't use conflict minerals, as determined by third-party auditors.
To date more than 70 smelters have been listed as conflict-free under the CFSP, providing computer makers with a source of metals that isn't perpetuating abuses by armed groups in central Africa. Smelters are assessed against the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals (PDF), which provides recommendations for how companies can respect human rights and avoid contributing to conflict when sourcing minerals.
The CFSI has validated smelters for all four metals derived from conflict minerals — tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold — as being conflict-free.
Unsurprisingly, the CFSI — and schemes run by jewellery and gold bullions trade groups — has limitations, which means it isn't a silver bullet when it comes to severing the decades old link between the western consumer goods and the central African mines where abuses are perpetrated.
At present there simply aren't enough of these conflict-free smelters to meet the needs of the world's biggest computer makers. Even HP, the world's largest server maker, and a firm that was rated as having made the second most progress of any electronics manufacturer in the world by the Enough Project in 2012 (PDF), said that of the just over 200 smelters it deals with only about 60 are certified as conflict-free. And of these 60 conflict-free smelters, only four or five source minerals from inside the DRC.
Apple revealed similar figures (PDF) earlier in 2014. It has verified 59 smelters in its supply chain as conflict-free, but 104 of its smelters use minerals whose origins are unknown.
Boycotting one of the world's poorest countries
Because of the lack of mines within the DRC certified as being conflict-free, some smelters have stopped sourcing minerals from the DRC and its adjoining countries in order to gain a conflict-free status.
This de facto boycott limits the DRC's ability to sell its trillions of dollars worth of untapped mineral wealth, in a country ranked by the UN as one of the poorest in the world, with the average annual income per person just $286 in 2012.
Video: Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
The conflict-free smelters and refiners used by electronics firms under the CFSP only source about 10% of 3T metals from inside the DRC and 15% from its neighbouring countries.
Stopping sourcing minerals from the DRC and its neighbouring countries will kill what could be a valuable part of these countries' economies, say activists.
"The biggest loophole in our view is that many companies are moving to withdraw from the DRC and that is not what we want to see companies doing. What we would like to see companies doing is to stay in the region and try to do their best to influence it in a positive way," said Gisela ten Kate who wrote a report into the use of conflict minerals by European companies for the pressure group SOMO.
After the Dodd-Frank Act was signed into US federal law in 2010, demand for 3T minerals from Congolese mines slowed right down, according to Fidel Bafilemba, who works as a field researcher for the anti-genocide group Enough Project and is based in Goma in the DRC.
"Soon after, there was a pull out by the companies because they were unable to substantiate whether their minerals were conflict-free or not," he said.
"Eastern Congo suffered a de facto embargo."
Left without much of a western market to sell into, Bafilemba said Congolese mines have instead been selling minerals to smelters that were not seeking to be whitelisted under the CFSP, which he said commonly sell to non-SEC registered Chinese firms.
"Since the pull out of the electronics companies there has been a tremendous surge by the Congolese government and local mining companies seeking an alternative market with the Chinese," he said.
The price that these smelters are willing to to pay for minerals varies but is generally far lower than what miners were previously receiving. In the case of the tin ore cassiterite, it's roughly one third of what miners were receiving previously, he said. In 2013 tantalum ore Coltan from the North Kivu region was reported to be selling for one tenth the price it fetched in the early 2000s (PDF).
Rebuilding Eastern Congo's mining industry
Cleaning up mining operations in the DRC so they no longer fund militias, don't use child labour, and introduce safer working conditions is a massive undertaking.
There are around 5,000 mines in the North and South Kivu region of Eastern Congo. These mines employed tens of thousands of people at their peak, although the de facto embargo has reduced the scale of mining operations in the region, with trade in tin almost collapsing in North Kivu according to a November 2013 report from the region (PDF).
In these mines, adults and children dug minerals with very basic tools or their hands, without safety training or equipment, and in mines under militia control forced labour was not uncommon. Fatalities and serious accidents were a regular occurrence, and still are in operating mines.
While on paper South African and Canadian firms hold the exploration rights to many of the mines in Eastern Congo, the violence in the region led many of them to pull out, which resulted in groups of what are called artisanal miners moving in.
Artisanal miners are small groups who illegally work the mining concessions in the region. These are the miners that have historically fallen under the control of armed groups, who extracted money from them through taxes and extortion.
Today there is an opportunity to reform the way the mines are run, as unlike much of the past 15 years, the majority of 3T mines in Eastern Congo are free of armed groups, according to Bafilemba. Most significantly, this includes the Bisie mine in North Kivu that accounted for about 70% of cassiterite coming out of the region. Nevertheless, militias remain in control of some mines.
And while 3T mines are largely outside of militia control, the same can't be said for the gold mines, which are still largely run by armed groups, both militias, and the Congolese army, Bafilemba said. The difference stems from the ease with which gold can be smuggled over the border and sold as if originating from a different country. Even small quantities of gold, which can be transported and hidden with relative ease, can fetch a high price over the border, he said. By comparison, the tonnes of 3T minerals that would need to be sneaked out of the DRC to make the risk financially worthwhile make smuggling difficult.
But even with the armed groups no longer controlling the majority of the 3T mines, reforming how thousands of mines are run in a country just under one quarter the size of the US is going to take time, said Bafilemba.
"Asking people to change the way they do business is not easy," he said. "But they realise if they do not conform to what is required, they are not going to sell."
The country has very few roads or railways to speak of, and instability, corruption, and a lack of infrastructure have slowed the rate at which mines inside the country can be certified as having safe working conditions and being outside of militia control, said Jay Celorie, global program manager for conflict minerals at HP.
"It's a result of those other things that really should be provided by the government that aren't available, as opposed to the private sector not wanting to mine those areas," he said.
"In order to have traceability somebody has to pay for that cost of traceability and so you need a mining company that's willing to make that investment and ensure that happens."
The capacity of the Congolese state to oversee the artisanal mining sector is also extremely limited, agreed Bafilemba. Along with corruption, their ability to oversee the territory under their responsibility is also held back by a lack of means, personnel, resources, and technical knowledge, he said.
He added that progress has been made in less troubled regions of the DRC, such as Maniema and Katanga.
Reforming conditions in mines in the North Kivu region, which has the largest tin and other mineral deposits, had proved impossible until recently because an armed group named M23 was active in the region.
But the defeat of M23 in November 2013, when the group signed a peace treaty with the Congolese government, has spurred some affiliated militias to lay down their weapons, and electronics firms are beginning to show interest in helping to set up new mining operations.
"US electronics companies — Intel, Motorola, HP, and others — they have come to the ground and are thinking now of launching pilot projects at a number of mines in Masisi [a province in North Kivu], which is good news," said Bafilemba.
"This would not be possible if the M23 was still active."
The defeat of M23 was in part attributed to the efforts of the UN intervention brigade, a complement of UN soldiers working with the Congolese army to suppress the armed groups in Eastern DRC.
Artisanal miners in North and South Kivu regions have been organising into co-operatives. These co-operatives allow mines to be registered as meeting certain standards and issued with mining permits.
"There have also been a lot of campaigns sensitising people about the working conditions in mines, the fact that OECD due diligence requires no use of children, no exploitation of women sexually, the banning of illegal taxes, that only the mining police should be securing the mine and the trading routes. So all of these are being put together," said Bafilemba.
Trading centres or "centre de négoce" for minerals have also been constructed that aim to ensure no illegal taxes will be levied along trading routes. These centres also monitor the level of militarisation at sites supplying them with minerals and provide a site where miners can sell minerals for guaranteed prices, set to their value on the London Stock Exchange.
Work is taking place to finalise a regulatory framework to certify the conditions in which minerals are being mined in the DRC and the neighbouring country of Rwanda. The framework for mineral certification, known as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Regional Initiative against the Exploitation of Natural Resources, will put in place measures for third-party inspections, audits of mines, and combating fraud and mineral smuggling, as well as setting up a database for mineral tracking.
In the meantime there are various initiatives taking place on the ground in Eastern Congo to verify mines are not funding armed groups and are observing safe and humane working practices. These traceability schemes are vital for programmes like the Conflict-Free Smelter Program to certify mines are conflict free and to allow the DRC to build a legitimate mining industry.
One such programme is the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources' (BGR) Certified Trading Chains scheme, which aims to demonstrate minerals have been produced in a responsible way and to develop ethical trading chains.
The BGR is also setting up a fingerprint analysis database system in Eastern DRC that will analyse minerals for a chemical signature linked to a particular mine, allowing the provenance of those minerals to be checked.
The tin industry association, International Tin Research Institute (ITRI), has developed a traceability system (iTSCi) that is used to monitor the origins of 3T minerals in the DRC.
Under the iTSCi scheme 3T minerals are bagged and tagged with the mine they were dug from, so they can be traced through the supply chain from the mine to the finished product.
Mines are visited by representatives of the UN, the BGR, the Congolese government, civil society, and local mining companies to certify they are free of armed groups and respecting human rights.
"For this multi-stakeholder team to go out you need optimum security conditions so the various foreign nationals can get security clearance to go to these areas from their embassies," said Bafilemba.
"That's why we're hoping that the Congolese army, along with the UN intervention brigade, is going to do its best to secure most of these places."
iTSCi is also being extended into the previously conflict-stricken North Kivu province for the first time, with the scheme being set up in mines in Rubaya, west of Goma.
According to the Enough Project, by February 2013 a total of 20 mining sites had been validated as conflict free in North and South Kivu.
Another scheme, the Conflict Free Tin Initiative (CFTI), a joint programme mainly funded by the Dutch government and the Development Bank of South Africa, is trying to create a conflict-free supply chain from the mine to the finished product.
The project has been put into action at a mine in South Kivu, the region's largest cassiterite mine in a place called Kalimbi, and has also expanded to Maniema, a province bordering South Kivu.
To ensure the conflict-free minerals from the mine can be tracked right through to the final product the metals end up in the project is using two supply chain initiatives, the iTSCi and the Conflict-Free Smelter programme.
Participants in the CFTI include:
- AIM Metals & Alloys
- Malaysia Smelting Corporation Berhad (MSC)
- Motorola Solutions
- Tata Steel
While a step towards transparency, the project has its weaknesses. The Enough Project identified the potential for conflict minerals to leak into the supply chain via the 100 or so middlemen that buy minerals from the Kalimbi mine.
Elsewhere, three conflict-free mines producing tantalum in relatively safe working conditions is being operated by a mining co-operative in the Northern Katanga province. The group that set up the mine, Solutions for Hope, includes a variety of electronics companies, including AVX, BlackBerry, Fairphone, Flextronics, HP, Intel, Motorola, and Nokia.
The path to a better tomorrow
Despite these positive developments, Eastern DRC is still unstable and progress on building an internationally-recognised mining industry could be jeopardised by the resurgence of armed groups in the area. The UN recently published a report claiming that M23 leaders are recruiting new soldiers inside Rwanda, in a breach of the peace accord with the Congolese government. Even with the defeat of the M23, smaller armed groups are still present in Eastern DRC; according to the charity Oxfam there were 30 militias operating in the region in 2013.
Efforts to impose better working conditions at mines in Eastern DRC and sever links with armed groups are still fledgling, said Bafilemba.
"It is still at an early stage simply because most of the mines are in very remote areas, and since we still have rogue armed groups here and there, you never know. But also more significantly, the fact that Congo is lacking communications infrastructure in terms of roads, so we need to go step by step," he said.
But Mburano, now president of the largest mining co-operative in North Kivu, is hopeful that international awareness and regulations, combined with the initiatives on the ground, will allow the DRC to exploit its vast mineral wealth free from interference from armed groups.
He emphasized, "We're now adopting the OECD Dodd-Frank law to avoid all new forms of modern slavery."
- This article won the 2015 American Society of Business Publication Editors' top award for investigative journalism nationwide.