I met Holly Dranginis, a policy analyst for the Enough Project, at a roundtable discussion on responsible gold sourcing and mining this past summer. The Enough Project fights to end genocide and crimes against humanity, and their current initiatives are focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC or Congo), Sudan, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. The conflict in Congo, and the role of gold and other minerals in that conflict, has not been a constant headline in the US, but the details Holly shared about the war there are shocking. At the same time, the progress toward a more transparent, sustainable mineral trade that Holly outlined is impressive and inspiring. This winter I interviewed Holly about the war in Congo, the role of gold and other metals mining, and the Enough Project’s work there.
AB: The war in the DRC is the deadliest since World War II, taking the lives of more than 5.4 million people. Much of this violence has been funded by the extraction and trade of minerals including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. Can you explain the relationship between these minerals and the conflict in the region for those who are unfamiliar?
HD: The war in Congo began following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. At that time, armed groups were motivated by political power and grievances, as well as tensions and trauma related to the genocide. But Congo’s lucrative natural resources quickly became a source of revenue for violent armed groups in Congo and their backers, including the national army, and eventually became part of the complex landscape of motivations that sustained the fighting. For over a decade, investigations have revealed that armed groups are financed by and motivated by exploiting natural resources. For most groups, in order to take control over those riches and run successful illegal trading networks, they terrorize the civilian populations. For example, rebel commanders enslave civilians to work under brutal conditions at the mines, they abduct children in the communities to work and fight as part of their forces, and they use rape to tear apart the fabric of communities, force people to flee out of fear, and submit to their orders. There are many things that motivate groups to do this, but conflict minerals are the driving financer of these activities, and often one of the motivators.
AB: Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform Act is intended to prevent armed groups and militias from profiting through the illicit minerals trade by requiring publicly-traded US companies to conduct supply chain audits and trace the gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten in their supply chain. I have been impressed by the impact of this legislation and the new awareness of supply chains it is creating in the jewelry industry. But Dodd Frank could be construed as effectively creating a boycott of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold from DRC and the surrounding countries. It has certainly impacted legitimate mining operations as well. What reactions have you heard from artisanal miners, regional companies, and Congolese government in response to the legislation?
HD: One very common reaction we hear on the ground, from diverse stakeholders including miners, mining community civil society groups, local government, and church leaders, is that Dodd Frank is spurring in-region reforms that have been desperately needed for decades, but never put in place because there wasn’t the right outside pressure. Now, after prolonged entrenched illegal conflict minerals trading and brutal violence, Dodd Frank is creating market incentives to put pressure on regional authorities to finally build a clean minerals trade and support local economies by transitioning a lawless, violent minerals sector into a formalized trade. This will not be an overnight process, however, and yes, the livelihoods of legitimate, peaceful artisanal miners are harmed by the market forces that are making it less profitable for armed groups to terrorize civilians for control over mineral wealth. That’s why more reforms are needed to accompany Dodd Frank to make sure artisanal miners have a fluid way of joining the growing clean minerals trade in Congo, or have alternative livelihoods opportunities like agriculture and small business. We work on building support for in-region projects like this, especially among companies. One of our biggest advocacy goals is to create awareness and momentum among retail companies to source from the region, and support the development of a clean minerals trade there. Some bold, responsible companies have committed to continue to source from the region and helped build clean sourcing initiatives there. Boycotting the region is not the responsible thing to do, and in the long run, with more investment, some of the most prosperous business will hopefully be in Congo’s clean minerals trade.
AB: The electronics industry and the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition have been at the forefront of developing traceable, conflict-free mineral sources in DRC. Beyond supply chain audits and due diligence, how has the industry partnered with organizations like the Enough Project to create conflict-free products with materials from DRC? What are the parallels for how the jewelry industry can contribute?
HD: Industry actors have collaborated with Enough and other groups in a number of ways apart from supply chain management. First, companies like Intel, Motorola Solutions, and AVX have, with help from advocacy organizations like Resolve, Enough, and Congolese civil society councils, piloted closed-pipe conflict-free mines in Congo to begin to establish clean minerals sourcing opportunities for companies who want to support the region, along with job opportunities and growth for local communities. It would be a game-changer to see a critical mass of jewelry companies get involved in supporting conflict-free gold mines in the Great Lakes region, especially Eastern Congo. We are already starting to see interest and involvement in a closed-pipe gold mine in the Kivus by companies like Tiffany and Signet, but these initiatives need a broader push and financial support to advance those mines and make sure artisanal miners and communities benefit.
The other major impact of our collaboration with the tech industry has been in raising public awareness, especially on college campuses, which in turn launch their own powerful campaigns to influence the wider public. We’ve worked with Intel and others to create short videos to help explain the issues, hold rallies on college campuses and big public events with celebrity upstanders like Aaron Rodgers and Robin Wright. Tech companies have been with us organizing and supporting these initiatives, hoping to educate their consumer audiences and empower the next generation to carry the momentum forward. Jewelry companies, large and small, could follow that example, especially with their power in advertising and around the holidays. People attach sentimentality and enormous value to jewelry and jewelry brands – companies could use that power to raise awareness and elevate the importance of this issue to a broad public audience.
AB: How can smaller jewelers support the development of conflict-free gold mines in DRC? What is the scale of investment needed?
HD: There is broad range of investment needed, especially considering the important need for investment in artisanal mining communities and alternative livelihoods. The beauty of the in-region initiatives is that they are generally very collaborative and multi-stakeholder in nature, taking into account a number of different interests and perspectives, including downstream companies, mining companies, local and national government, and both local and international civil society groups. For the conflict-free sourcing initiatives, even small investments can make a difference. For community projects helping create agriculture or micro-finance opportunities or formalize artisanal mining, investment can start even lower to have a meaningful impact. Funds are needed for small business loans, distributing registration cards to artisanal miners, buying equipment for safer mining practices, and school fees for children who once worked in the mines, but due to reforms, are now given the chance to leave the mines and go to school. Small jewelry companies can make very important contributions with smaller grants to programs like that through their organizers, including Partnership Africa Canada, Solutions for Hope, and UNICEF. Small companies can also join efforts by attending events like Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forums on responsible sourcing, the Responsible Sourcing Network’s multistakeholder calls on conflict minerals, or the Public Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade. Small jewelers are also critical in raising awareness about the issue. The jewelry industry traditionally is very powerful over public consciousness, in part because consumers attach so much personal and sentimental value to the jewelry they buy. Public awareness does not happen overnight, and it doesn’t need to be widescale to be important. If small jewelers can influence a small subset of their customers to take interest in this issue, that interest can have ripple effects.
AB: Can you tell us more about the Mukungwe and Masisi conflict-free gold mines under development in the Kivus?
HD: The Mukungwe and Masisi mines are meant to build on successful conflict-free sourcing initiatives in Congo in tin and tantalum. The vision for investors, communities, NGOs and companies involved is to build fully conflict-free large-scale gold mines in eastern Congo. That way refiners and companies will have clear options for supporting Congo’s gold trade while still complying with Dodd Frank 1502. Mukungwe and Masisi are two examples of that vision in development. They are both works in progress, working to responsibly address conflict risk factors, and community needs, including alternative livelihoods programs and shared understanding of the mines’ impact on human rights and the environment. These kinds of projects must develop and maintain true multi-stakeholder involvement – including new mining police, tasked with helping to monitor security and transparency, and the invaluable work of local community-based organizations to monitor the projects’ impact. With this kind of investment, opportunities for conflict-free sourcing will increase, and gold mining communities will see increased security as armed groups are pushed out and replaced by regulated mining activities.
AB: The tension between large-scale and artisanal mining occurs alongside mineral and gemstone extraction all over the world. Because of the complexities of oversight, security, protocols, and international trade, investment can tend to focus on larger scale mines. How are the conflict-free 3T and gold mines in development in DRC approaching the relationship with artisanal miners?
HD: Large scale mining is an important way for Congo to benefit from its natural resources, as long as the industry development is done in a responsible manner, complementary to artisanal mining. Large-scale mining has the potential to bring revenues and development to the population. It’s true that when a large-scale mine is established, it can be at odds with artisanal mining communities because many artisanal miners may already be surface-mining the area that is set for development into a large scale mine. The responsible thing for companies and government partners to do is first, consult early and often with the artisanal mining community to assess the impact of the proposed large-scale mine and understand the grievances and interests of the artisanal miners and their families; second, to employ as many local artisanal miners as possible in the large-scale mine, and allow artisanal miners to continue mining parts of the concession wherever possible; and finally, to invest generously in alternative livelihoods projects for artisanal miners who can’t be employed by the mining company because of limits on the number of workers needed for large-scale mines.
AB: With initiatives like Fairmined or Fairtrade gold, much effort goes into the labeling, tracking, and tracing of the materials even after it’s been made into jewelry. Do you see conflict-free gold from DRC going this route? Would it be, for lack of a better term, ‘branded’ as conflict-free gold from DRC?
HD: The more transparency at any stage in the sourcing of gold and production of jewelry, the better. We encourage a variety of different approaches to ensuring that retail companies and consumers know where their gold is coming from and whether or not it is verified conflict-free. We’re also supportive of country-of-origin transparency because simply conflict-free gold without transparency about where the gold is from could indirectly encourage an embargo on the Great Lakes region and falls short of a comprehensively responsible approach to conflict-free gold sourcing. Truly responsible companies will support growth and development and peace in areas like Congo where gold has fueled conflict, rather than focusing on sourcing conflict-free gold from places where conflict hasn’t occurred in recent memory.
AB: Are there initiatives such as women’s cooperatives, microlending, or miner education that work with artisanal miners in the region?
HD: There are a number of incredible Congolese organizations working on this issue, including Synergie des Femmes in North Kivu and Maman Shujaa in South Kivu – both are women’s organizations designed to support women affected by violence in eastern Congo. The leaders and members of these organizations take great interest in the development of conflict-free sourcing initiatives because conflict minerals have a significant adverse impact on the safety and wellbeing of women and girls. Armed groups use rape as a weapon of war as part of their strategies to control mining areas in the east, and even in times of relative peace, mining areas are hotbeds of prostitution, rape, and child labor. Synergie and Mama Shujaa take a comprehensive, locally-led approach to these issues and do invaluable work to support communities and solve problems from the grassroots.
In addition, international groups like Eastern Congo Initiative, Partnership Africa Canada, and UNICEF are all doing work in this space – creating alternative livelihoods for former artisanal miners in areas like agriculture and small business, transitional child laborers into school, and helping support, educate, and equip artisanal miners for safer, more regulated, and more profitable work in mines.