SAN FRANCISCO – Conditions are improving for miners who dig the ore that’s processed into tin, tungsten and tantalum for smartphones and other electronics, though some still face interference from armed groups. But slumping demand and depressed prices for those minerals have driven many workers — nearly 240,000 people — to dig instead for gold that’s used in electronics, jewelry and other consumer products sold by Western companies.
Armed groups hold sway over mining sites where nearly two-thirds of Congo’s gold miners ply their trade. There, under threat of violence, workers are often forced to pay illegal “taxes” that support corrupt army units, rebel groups or unauthorized militias. Sometimes they’re conscripted into forced labor.
More often than not, the gun-toting groups are units of the Congolese army, known as the FARDC.
International Peace Information Service (IPIS) researcher Ken Matthysen, who co-authored the new report, estimates the vast majority of Congolese gold is exported outside legal channels. He said it’s smuggled into neighboring countries to disguise the true source, and then often exported to the United Arab Emirates.
Industry officials say gold is extremely difficult to trace through layers of wholesalers, refiners and other middlemen. They also blame ongoing civil unrest in the DRC.
Human rights groups also persuaded the U.S. Congress to address the issue in the 2010 financial reform bill known as the Dodd-Frank Act. One section of the law requires corporations to file annual reports showing what they’ve done to determine if they’re using tin, tungsten, tantalum or gold from Congo or neighboring countries.
Though it’s been three years since the reporting requirement took effect, most companies say they’re unable to trace all the minerals they use, since metals usually travel through complex supply chains that include mines, regional wholesalers, refiners and independent component-makers.
Silicon Valley’s Intel is one of very few companies to claim conflict-free status for its microprocessors and chipsets, citing audits of smelters in its supply chain. But Intel says it can’t be sure about other products it sells that contain components made elsewhere.
Apple, which also requires its smelters to undergo audits, says it has no indication that any of its products contain minerals that benefit armed groups. But while Apple reports more information than most companies, it stops short of declaring its products “conflict-free” and says those audits may not be enough. Apple also does its own investigations, focusing particularly on gold because it’s susceptible to smuggling and weak oversight.
Activists don’t want U.S. companies to simply stop using minerals from Congo, because that would hurt miners and their families. But some wholesalers have turned to sources elsewhere. And while the number of artisanal miners working in Congo has remained stable, IPIS estimates about 80 percent, or 193,000 workers, are now digging for gold. They produce about 12 tons of gold each year, worth about $437 million when sold at local trading sites.
Meanwhile, about half the miners digging for tin, tungsten or tantalum ore in the Congo are working at sites covered by an industry inspection system. IPIS found 21 percent of 3T miners at sites under the control of armed groups. That’s a big improvement from 57 percent in 2010.
But experts say the “tag and trace” system used for tracking 3T ore isn’t perfect. U.N. advisers reported last year that 3T minerals were still being smuggled from Eastern Congo into Rwanda. They also found a black market for altered or counterfeit tags. A separate report by the Enough Project, a human rights group, found Congolese inspectors are poorly paid and susceptible to bribes.
Tantalum mines in eastern Congo are still vulnerable to violence, according to the Enough Project. Its report cited an incident in January 2016 when a group of Congolese soldiers fired on civilian miners in the town of Rubaya, injuring nine people.