New Public-Private Alliance Will Launch a Conflict-Free Certification for Congolese Minerals

Who said the U.S. government is not pro-business? Next month, the government is launching a new Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA), creating a ‘conflict free’ certification program for electronics companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This initiative was introduced last week when U.S. Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero visited the Democratic Republic of Congo. The aim of the PPA is not just to help companies source conflict-free minerals from Congo, but also to recalibrate the Dodd-Frank law, which has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in Congo, so that it stops unintentionally hurting the same people it was designed to help in the first place.

As we discussed in detail in the past (see here and here), one of the results of the historic Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is a new requirement of the SEC that companies disclose the use of conflict minerals from Congo in their products. This requirement will only be enacted next year, but electronics companies are already taking measures and some of them are putting a hold on their purchases of tin, tungsten, tantalum and other minerals from Congo.

These steps led to what journalist David Aronson called in a New York Times Op-Ed piece “unintended and devastating consequences.” Aronson pointed out that many artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers were hurt by this de-facto embargo, while war barons who were the target of the law keep benefiting from mining, as they smuggle the minerals outside of Congo.

The goal of the conflict-minerals provision of the Dodd-Frank law wasn’t to create an embargo on Congo and hurt the Congolese people, but to “cut off funding to people who kill people,” as Representative Barney Frank explained. The problem is that it is much easier for companies to completely stop sourcing from Congo than to determine by themselves which Congolese minerals are conflict-free, exposing themselves this way to both legal and PR risks. This is exactly the void the new initiative is trying to fill by creating a legally safe option that will keep companies sourcing from Congo.

The PPA will focus on three goals:

  1. Assisting with the development of pilot supply chain systems that will allow businesses to source minerals from mines that have been audited and certified to be ‘conflict-free.’
  2. Providing a platform for coordination amongst government, industry, and civil society actors seeking to support conflict-free sourcing from the DRC.
  3. Establishing a website designed to serve as a resource for companies seeking information regarding how to responsibly source minerals from the DRC.

Among the current 21 participants in the initiative are large electronics companies like AMD, HP, Intel, Nokia, Motorola and Sprint. There are also a number of NGOs and groups involved such as Enough Project, Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and the Responsible Sourcing Network. The funding for the new initiative comes both from federal funds and the private sector – The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will invest approximately $3.2 million and companies and industry associations are expected to invest $2 million or more in funding by the end of 2012.

One company that is surprisingly missing is Apple. Apple stopped sourcing conflict minerals last April backing another voluntary initiative. The Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program, which as we reported on here in April, identifies smelters through independent third party auditors, who can assess which raw materials did not originate from sources that profit off the conflict in Congo. In the past Apple was the target of protests of groups pressing the company to commit to using conflict-free minerals in its iPhones and iPads. It’s not clear yet why Apple hasn’t decided to join, but hopefully it will as its participation can certainly help to popularize this initiative among both manufactures and consumers.

There are still many issues that need to be cleared such as the identity of the auditing and certifying body and how independent it will be. It also remains to be seen how many companies will collaborate with the PPA and agree to source certified conflict free minerals. I guess it depends both on the price and the value of doing so – if it will be cheaper comparing to other mineral sources (in Asia for example), it shouldn’t be a problem. Yet, if these certified minerals will be more expensive, which might be the case, then it depends very much on the success of companies to market the added value of this practice to their customers and how much customers will care and value it.

The launch of the PPA might not necessarily “break the link between the minerals trade and armed groups,” as it aspires to, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction and we can only hope it will work to benefit the people of Congo.

Image credit: Tjflex2, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

One response

  1. Business owners would differ with your assessment that the creation of PPA proves government is pro-business. They might hear Reagan’s words ringing in their ears: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.'”

    Starting a “pilot program” doesn’t solve the issue. The issue is that thousands of tribes have lost their livelihood and are starving to death. A pilot program will allow people to buy coltan from a few big corporation mines, but it will do nothing for the hundreds of thousands of people whose mines don’t fall into this pilot program, if it even gets underway. People are dying right now because of Dodd-Frank and we’re all standing around debating future potential solutions that will be spear-headed by a government bureaucracy that has yet to be created. Not encouraging, especially to all those tribes that don’t have jobs anymore that won’t even be part of this initiative.

    Our Congo-based company works with Congolese tribes to help them export without a dime going to conflict groups. Dodd-Frank has been disastrous for them.

    I challenge the supporters to take a poll of those they are supposedly trying to protect. The response would tell them that, while Dodd-Frank was well-meaning, it is an unmitigated disaster in practice. COCABI, COMIMPA and COMIDER represent 20,000 miners in the conflict area. They all say they’ve never even been contacted.

    There are six regions from which Dodd-Frank minerals are mined, and only one of them has ever had anything to do with conflict. Dodd-Frank has put them all out of business before it is even enacted. The World Bank says it has negatively affected 10 million Congolese.

    Wouldn’t it make sense to FIRST declare any minerals coming out of those five unattached regions to be clean and immediately encourage companies to go back in and start buying?

    I was in Tanzania last week to help a chief export his coltan using a visible, well-documented process that ensures not a dime goes to conflict. His people will go hungry because the smelters, citing Dodd-Frank, have vanished. The chief is devastated, as are the millions who find their meager livelihoods destroyed by this over-reaching act.

    The issue with Dodd-Frank is that it is a nuclear option that demonizes minerals instead of criminals. It’s no different than burning down every house in town to stop a burglar from stealing, who will simply steal from somewhere else. PPA does not change this. Instead it reinforces the ridiculous notion that minerals are bad and need to be monitored, when in fact criminals are bad and need to be monitored and eradicated.

    Dodd-Frank has burned down the entire mining industry in the Congo in hopes that their scorched earth policy will catch a militia group in its path. They are willing to take down every innocent man, woman, and child who live off mining. Such massive collateral damage is not acceptable under any circumstance.

    Remove mining from the equation and the militia will exact its pound of flesh from the locals by other means. This should be handled by targeting militias, not mining. Dodd-Frank takes the route of universal collateral damage, which, before the bill is enacted, has already destroyed the livelihoods of the innocents who depend on it.

    It is unconscionable that we are focusing on minerals instead of on criminals. The UN and the United States need to both grow a backbone and go after the problem, the militia. Until they do, the bumper sticker will read, “If minerals are outlawed, only outlaws will sell minerals.”

    See for more information in support of the people of the Congo whose lives are being destroyed by this emphasis on demonizing minerals instead of criminals.

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