An ugly truth behind ‘ethical consumerism’


Laura Kasinof is an award-winning freelance journalist. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

KACHUBA, Congo — The way to the mine wound upward past fields of cassava and sweet potato, a patchwork quilt of small farms set among villages of round, thatched-roof homes. An hour’s climb up, the Kachuba tin mine community is a collection of shacks that serves as a home-away-from-home for the hundred or so men who come here hoping to make a living wage out of what the mountain provides.

Men toted 110-pound bags of cassiterite — the most common tin-producing ore — down the footpath to a station below, where it would be prepared for export. For each bag a porter carries, he earns around $4. If the mine is producing well, a porter might make the roundtrip a handful of times a day.

On the other side of the makeshift village, down a sharp hill, the serenity of Kachuba’s natural beauty suddenly gave way to the grit of hard manual labor. Here there was a nearly 500-foot-deep pit, at the end of which men spend their days picking at the earth with rudimentary tools. The miners said, on a good day, they can make almost $30 in the pit, working from morning until dark.

Until recently, the miners had been selling the five or so tons of tin they chiseled out of the mountain each day to whomever came with the best offer. The Kachuba mine was designated as “conflict-free” in December 2017. Before then, the mineral was often tagged as conflict-free anyway — fraudulently.

American companies rely on so-called bag-and-tag systems to assure the minerals they source from Congo are not fueling armed conflict. Even before it was technically conflict-free, tin from Kachuba made its way into the market anyway: to exporters, onto smelters, to consumer electronics companies and eventually into the appliances that power the daily lives of people around the world.

Congo hosts a significant amount of the world’s tin, tungsten and, especially, coltan, known collectively as the 3Ts (tantalum comes from coltan) — minerals that are found in everything from cellphones and computers to lightbulbs and vacuum cleaners. More recently, they have become useful in solar panels and attractive as a way to improve the durability and efficiency of lithium-ion batteries, of which we are going to need millions more if the global electric transportation boom is to accelerate.

Congo has been exploited by outsiders since Portuguese explorers first set foot here in 1482. Belgium’s King Leopold II later ruled over a brutal rubber trade, during which the people harvesting the raw material were treated as far less than human.

A century later, the U.S. government propped up the regime of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, largely as an anti-Soviet measure but also to ensure American access to the nation’s vast mineral wealth. Congo’s soil contains trillions and trillions of dollars’ worth of copper, diamonds, gold and much more.

Now the modern world has an insatiable appetite for the 3Ts. The WorldPost visited two mines in eastern Congo, where these minerals are concentrated. The region has seen years of brutal wars, and hostile militias still control territory here today. The killing, pillaging and mass rape that those militias have inflicted on local populations has been well documented, as has the way in which eastern Congo’s armed groups have financed their terror from money earned through mining rare minerals. Unlike other mining in Congo, the 3Ts are sourced only from small-scale, non-industrial, community mines — easier for militias to exploit.

As a result of a lobbying and activist effort to stem the trade in resources that fuels armed groups in eastern Congo, the U.S. passed landmark legislation in 2010, buried in the Dodd-Frank Act, that requires publicly listed American companies to disclose if their tin, tungsten, coltan or gold came from Congo or its neighboring countries. The companies also have to conduct due diligence to mitigate risks that these minerals could be fueling armed groups.

The European Union has drafted similar conflict-free mineral legislation, and even China has moved toward regulating so-called conflict minerals. While the Trump administration has considered overturning the Dodd-Frank Act, and its conflict-free minerals component in particular, several major tech companies have said that they are committed to sourcing conflict-free minerals regardless. Ethical consumerism has caught on.

However, the effects of conflict-free mining laws on the ground in chaotic and underdeveloped eastern Congo is another story. Since Dodd-Frank, militias in eastern Congo have only proliferated. Miners are still working in pitiful conditions with little investment into tools and infrastructure. Much evidence points to the reality that minerals coming from mines controlled by militias are still making their way into the global market.

In Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, I met with François Amisi Kuonewa, the local minister of mines. Kounewa was a genial man who was clearly proud of his rise through the ranks of bureaucracy to become a government leader in the mining sector. A placard sat on his desk from a recent gold expo in Dubai to which he had been invited.

“The reality is that conflict-minerals sites that are not controlled by the government are exploited by armed groups,” Kounewa told The WorldPost.

If tin, tantalum and coltan mines in government-controlled areas meet certain criteria — like safety and absence of child labor — then they can be labeled as conflict-free and their minerals can safely make their way into the market. The system that primarily labels and traces the conflict-free minerals is called iTSCi, an effort by the London-based International Tin Association to step in for the due-diligence requirement of Dodd-Frank.

But tracing minerals has been fraught with problems. One problem, Kounewa said, is that regulation can “encourage smuggling,” since minerals from mines that are not validated as conflict-free still make it into the market one way or another. Much of eastern Congo’s border runs through large lakes and is extremely porous; Rwanda, next door, is often cited as a conduit for smugglers.

Jonathan Frost, the managing director of Dubai-based minerals trading company Noviva, the parent company of the new exporter for the Kachuba tin mine, said that his company had stopped exporting tin from Rwanda due to concerns that it had been smuggled there from eastern Congo. “Unfortunately, we came to the conclusion through fact and inspection that the economics and supply dynamics simply did not add up,” he told me.

If smuggled tin, tungsten and coltan reach international smelters, and if those smelters have been validated by another regulatory body, the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), then it’s possible for the minerals to reach American consumer electronics companies. The vast majority of those companies that publish due-diligence reports rely on RMI to approve the minerals that they are buying. Leah Butler, the vice president at the Responsible Business Alliance, of which RMI is a part, stressed that RMI’s smelter audits are meant to “complement” individual companies’ due diligence, not replace it.

However, Sophia Pickles, a senior campaigner at human rights organization Global Witness who has been researching mining in eastern Congo for the past nine years, said that may not always be the case. “Most companies want to take the short cut and do as little as possible, so they do rely on the due-diligence schemes,” she said.

In Bukavu, I ran into Warit Choovaree, the procurement director of Thailand-based Thaisarco, one of the world’s largest tin smelters. Thaisarco is RMI-certified. I asked Choovaree whether his company was concerned about accidentally buying smuggled minerals. “Do you want me to tell the truth?” he replied. “I think everybody knows about it, and we don’t want to talk about it.”

Three years ago, Congo’s government established an anti-fraud office meant to target smuggling and illegally tagged minerals, but the deputy coordinator of the branch in Bukavu, Paul Okoko, said that he was grossly underfunded and understaffed. “Just this morning at 2am, I received a call that a car was loading minerals into a boat on the lake just outside Bukavu,” he said. “I was told it has two [metric] tons of tin, but I had no means to go there. And you know, security in Bukavu isn’t good. Now those minerals are in Rwanda.”

Okoko and I talked in his small office, which was decorated with portraits of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mao Zedong. He said he receives around three to four such calls a week. Meanwhile, government officials meant to monitor mining sometimes stray into the illegal side of the industry. The man who, until recently, occupied Okoko’s place in Bukavu’s anti-fraud office was arrested in November 2017. Among the accusations against him was mineral fraud.

At another government office, this one the size of a small cubicle and made of cinder blocks, I met with Claver Nzabonimana, the administrative secretary at the Division of Mines in Nyabibwe, a town along Lake Kivu surrounded by community mines.

Nzabonimana said they also lack resources to effectively monitor “négociants” — the middlemen who buy minerals from community mines to then sell to exporters in cities. “It can happen that the négociant will want to mix the minerals from validated and unvalidated sites,” he said. “Our office is very small, and there are around 20 négociants in this town. If we had a center for the négociants to work, then they could be monitored.”

No one I spoke with disputes that standards for mines are a good thing, nor did anyone support repealing the Dodd-Frank Act. The issue was the way in which the law was enacted: it left the market scrambling for a solution that facilitated more investment into fulfilling legal duties, and appealing to consumers in the process, rather than improving life in eastern Congo. Tracing minerals from validated mines has been a Band-Aid solution for more intractable problems like poor governance and the world’s growing desire for these minerals. It was a solution largely financed by the tech industry and the U.S. government, which both have an incentive to keep the stream of minerals flowing.

Another concern, a high-ranking mining official in South Kivu told me, is that iTSCi is no longer the only player tracing 3T minerals in eastern Congo. A London-based company, the Better Sourcing Program, has just started bagging and tagging tin from the Kachuba mine. “This does not please iTSCi,” the official said when we met at a small bar in Bukavu. The electricity was not working at his office, nor was the generator.

With iTSCi, the International Tin Association came to “save the situation,” the official went on, because otherwise many foreign companies were afraid to buy Congo’s minerals after the Dodd-Frank Act was passed. “Now you can see that instead of saving the situation, they made a business to benefit off of the poor people here,” he said. Exporters in Bukavu told me that they pay $480 to the International Tin Association for each metric ton of tin exported. “There was a hope that [conflict-free mining legislation] would stop fueling armed groups, but at the end, you realize that it is not the case,” the official continued.

Sitting on a bench outside the Kachuba mine, pit manager Akilimali Kitoga said he had other things to worry about than a conflict between two traceability systems. The 33-year-old was here to make a better life for himself. He had hired two dozen mine diggers before the mine was validated as conflict-free. Still, he was skeptical about the new exporter sourcing from Kachuba. “I’m not convinced they will help us, but whoever marries your mother becomes your father,” he said. In other words, there was nothing he could do about it. “At the end of the day,” he added, “the miners are neglected.”

Another man, caked in yellow earth and dressed in tattered clothes, stopped beside Kitoga and dropped a sack of cassiterite. I asked him if he knew why the bag had a tag on it. “No idea,” he said.

“It’s to prevent fraud,” Kitoga interrupted.

He grabbed his off-brand, basic cellphone off the bench and stood up to return to the village where the smell of beer was growing strong late in the afternoon. Miners were starting to relax after a day’s work, finding a small table on which to eat a dinner of maize and meat. A new day of chiseling away at the mountain would begin tomorrow.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

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