Fair Phone = Fair Trade? Mineral Governance and Armed Violence in DR Congo

Congo 211The relationship between armed conflict and mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is undergoing rapid and radical changes. This autumn, the new Fairphone has reached the production phase, based on certificates provided by the conflict-free tine initiative and Solutions for Hope projects in the Central African country. In the meantime, initiatives are competing for the public’s and market attention. Time for a critical update.


Most policies that address the relationship between armed conflict and mining in Central Africa are driven by the so-called greed thesis. This hypothesis assumes that armed conflict will likely occur in places where there exists an opportunity – or feasibility – to loot. Since the mid-1990s, scholars have debated the question whether parties to armed conflict are motivated predominantly by economic opportunity, or whether and how they actively develop social and political agendas. This strong focus on economic agendas in contemporary wars has spurred nothing less than a revolution in conflict & peace studies over the last twenty years, leading amongst others to some radical changes in post-conflict interventions. A growing number of peace interventions in resource abundant countries nowadays concentrate on the nourishment of reform initiatives that aim to foster ‘peace’ through formal property ‘development’, specifically in the natural resource industry. These initiatives have unfolded predominantly within the domain of so-called ‘resource wars’: armed conflicts which presumably revolve to a significant degree over the procurement of and access to critical natural resources by armed actors who express seemingly incompatible claims to these resources. In sum the notion of the ‘resource war’ represents nothing but a scant re-proposition of the greed thesis that me and others have criticized since so many years. In the mining town of Kamituga, for example, Koen Vlassenroot and I observed a reciprocal dependency of miners and armed ‘protector’ movements that benefited from the taxation of the gold trade. Researcher Dan Fahey described the complex connections between land, ethnicity and resource exploitation in the district of Ituri. And James H. Smith unveils the association between dispossession, vernacular development and globalized trade in the domain of coltan mining in Eastern DRC.

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or criminals?

In the last decade, a plethora of organizations and lobby groups (like for example the Enough Project) have sprung up to presumably curb this fatal association between war and natural resources in Africa’s Great Lakes region. One driving process, for example, has been the Dodd/Frank Act in the United States (for a brief summary see this document).

Section 1502 of this Act imposes a series of legal obligations to companies registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and implicated in the supply-chains of tin, tantalum, wolframite, and any other mineral that potentially fuels armed conflict from eastern DRC. In the slipstream of this Act, a ‘conflict minerals map’ has been commissioned by USAID to a conglomerate of transnational agencies (the Antwerp-based International Peace Information Service, the UN’s DRC mission and the German Bundesanstalt fur Geowissenschaften). This map serves to indicate conflict-sensitive and -free mining areas and implement emerging Congolese legislation with regard to minerals exploitation and exports. The Congolese agency SAESSCAM (small-scale mining technical assistance and training) is currently busy circumscribing ‘conflict free’ mining areas in collaboration with the Ministry of Mines to start implementing the Dodd/Frank Act on the ground, while starting to ‘bag and tag’ minerals from identified areas to the global market. Two initiatives today stick out as particularly prominent in this field: PACT and iTSCi. iTSCi (the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative) is a joint initiative, which is driven by the industry, and which assists upstream companies (‘from mine to the smelter’) to enact the recently OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. It also takes into account the recommendations of the UN Security Council to expand due diligence and helps relevant US companies to report on their due diligence efforts to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as required by the Dodd-Frank Act. iTSCi is currently the most developed due diligence mechanism with regard to conflict minerals from DRC. Finally, some donor countries also develop a strong institutional reform component while addressing conflict issues in DRC, focusing amongst others on the practical enhancement of financial transparency, property rights and marketability of natural resources that have a presumably strong role in previous conflict funding. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, natural resource sector reform has followed a pathway of reclaiming ‘robust’ state authority in the domain of natural resource exploitation and trade, while simultaneously curbing the actions of ‘peace spoilers’ in this domain.

The main problem with such reform programmes is that they misread the high degree of institutional pluralism that typically characterizes the regulation of mineral trade and exploitation in post-war environments. International agencies do not usually jump into an institutional void when proposing their reforms of privatization and enhancement of formal property rights, but these rights are typically formulated in competition with other systems of regulation, including ‘traditional’, ‘informal’ and ‘military’ rules of the game. How and in what specific institutional constellations such alternative systems of ‘power, profit and protection’ are being currently formulated and encapsulated will be the focus of a future study I embark upon with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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a victim of badvocacy?

The question that is out there now for policy makers is whether it is better to do bad advocacy or no advocacy at all, as Laura Saey posted a few times (see also the hashtag #badvocacy on twitter). In the DRC, policy studies have systematically overstated the share of Congo’s resources in the global economy and the conflict, they also wrongfully depict the ASM sector as being generally unregulated, criminalized and dominated by military agents. This dangerous uncritical equation of resource exploitation with criminality and state fragility in a context of war-to-peace transition not only blatantly ignores the motivations of hundreds of thousands artisan mine workers, their group interests and economic risk dispersal behaviour, but it actually risks generating exactly the opposite effects of peaceful development, namely more violence and military exploitation, Sara Geenen and Dan Fahey suggest.

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The beginning of a long process

Rather than assuming a positive relation between property right formalization and ‘peace’, what lacks currently is an in-depth understanding of how different participants in the mining economy react to formalization incentives and how these reactions influence the regulation of the mining economy as a whole. African producers – and DRC miners are no exception – do not typically operate separately in different economic ‘sectors’ but they try to disperse economic risk by balancing alternative types of resources, in short they straddle between different livelihoods and life worlds. Purely Cartesian understandings of economic space (like for example through the use of static maps) completely neglect the interactions and exchanges that exist between different mineral production networks, workers and commercial intermediaries at the regional scale in Africa’s Great Lakes region, because they (wrongly) assume a linear commodity chain “from mine to market”. Current initiatives also obscure the important transnational dimension of mineral governance nowadays in DR Congo as it takes shape through a circular exchange between non-governmental organizations, donor governments, and private businesses, all of which, in different ways and in different figurations, intervene in the regulation of this contested arena (the OECD multi-stakeholder initiative being a strong case in point). The tendency to ‘fix’ mineral governance in space not only risks downgrading the problem of mineral governance to the national and local level (thus taking away responsibility at a global level), it also largely overshadows the active participation and impact of transnational regulation schemes on mineral production and miners’ livelihoods. Instead of focusing exclusively on criminality and livelihood gains, therefore, more attention is needed to the way users of mineral resources are actively weighing the costs and benefits of formalization from their particular perspective of economic risk dispersal. This requires questions not necessarily about livelihood assets, opportunities and outcomes but rather about push and pull factors, institutional choice patterns and political patronage – in short about the institutional environment in which formalization takes place at a local-to-regional scale.

Timothy Raeymaekers

More articles on the Fair Phone in the Times of India, The Guardian and The Independent 

Follow Fair Phone on twitter

(all photographs were taken during a field trip to the gold mining site of Kamituga in 2003, financed by Novib and facilitated by APIDE)

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