Tracing the Supply Chain:
While NGO’s, advocacy organizations, the international community and the United States Congress have accepted the link between Congo’s mineral wealth and the massacre of the Congolese people, drawing a clear line between the mining companies, product manufacturers, and electronics end-users presents a more complicated picture.
A U.N. report in the wake of the 2000 tantalum rush does not directly blame the makers of cell phones, computers and other devices for human rights violations and war in the region. They do, however, cite mining companies as “the engine of conflict in the DRC.”
With unregulated DRC mines, the minerals may pass through ten intermediaries before being processed. The minerals, once they have been extracted, are sold to local traders—who may or not be rebels. The local traders then sell the unprocessed minerals to a regional trader. At this stage, the material may switch hands numerous times, before being sold to comptoirs – or trading houses–where the minerals then enter the market where it’s sold to processors.
Following publicity stemming from the 2000 tantalum price surge and subsequent human rights violations, most mining processors have either denied their involvement in purchasing minerals benefitting warring parties or have issued statements that they will no purchase Congolese colton. While the processors have taken an ethical stance, their conduct does not withstand scrutiny. Whether directly or indirectly, many purchasing minerals through traders in central Africa are linked to militia controlled mines. Although officially state-licensed comptoirs are said to be operating legally, and thus not trading in conflict minerals, this is rarely the case. Many comptoirs knowingly purchase minerals they know to be mined to finance militias, and others simply operate without a license and smuggle minerals to sell across the DNC border. Unless a processor has purchased minerals directly from the mine, it’s proven extremely challenging to determine its origin.
Processing companies, including H.C. Starck, which produces 50 percent of the world’s
tantalum powder, and US-based Cabot, both buy from international trading companies.After they purchase the raw colon, they sell refined tantalum powder to capacitor manufacturers, including Hitachi, Kemet, and Vishay. These company’s capacitors are then sold to the world’s biggest electronic manufacturers. Apple, Alcatel, Compaq, Dell, Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Motorola, Nokia and Solectron are all major buyers of tantalum capacitors.
Electronics manufacturers have also come out in opposition to using any conflict minerals from the DRC. Most of the biggest manufacturers, however, while acknowledging their concerns on mineral sourcing, are reluctant to accept direct responsibility for ensuring their products are mined from conflict-free regions. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has said that “companies who source these minerals are generally far removed from HP, typically multiple tiers from our direct suppliers”, but that, “we have a shared responsibility regarding conflict-free mineral sourcing” and it “expects” companies in their supply chain do not operate in a way that supports DRC conflict.
Steve Jobs of Apple, in an email to a concerned customer, described the effort and struggles associated with ensuring conflict-free minerals are in Apple products.
“We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”
At the end of the line is us as consumers, who, absent detailed, transparent mineral sourcing information, currently have no way of telling whether or not the device in our hand has in one way or another played a role in financing a militia, or enslaving a child in a mine.