A Global Witness investigation released today has revealed that a certification process intended to set standards appears to launder conflict minerals.
Companies sourcing minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), such as Apple, Tesla and Intel, may be using materials obtained through mines controlled by militia or through mines controlled by militia or that use child workers, an investigation by the Global Witness has revealed.
The ITSCI, the Programme Mineral Supply Chains appear not to have properly regulated supply chains, with the investigation revealing that the organisation knowingly “downplayed and ignored these issues”.
ITSCI, which is run by the International Tin Association, ITA and Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, TIC, represents many of the major buyers of 3T minerals, in particular, coltan and cassiterite from DRC, a conflict of interest and “self-policing” which lead investigator Alex Kopp suggests to The Africa Report is the root of the problem.
ITSCI’s scheme is intended to regulate minerals from traders. On its website, the organisation describes its purpose as “to create responsible mineral supply chains that avoid contributing to conflict, human rights abuses, or other risks such as bribery, currently in central Africa.”
Miners earn very little but end up burdening the cost of the ITSCI system. I think it’s really problematic that Western countries impose on them a system which in theory should ensure responsible sourcing but in practice, it really doesn’t work.
The process requires traders to seal bags from “green-rated” mines which are then exported. However, the investigation revealed that many bags were being tagged without regulation, often under the supervision of government officials. In some cases, it appears that “ITSCI field staff actively collaborate with miners and officials to launder minerals and in some cases take a cut of the illicit proceeds.”
In a response to the investigation, ITSCI said, “We strongly believe that ITSCI plays a credible and valuable role in responsible sourcing of 3T minerals through our joint-industry due diligence programme, in which we engage extensively with our stakeholders. We believe the criticism aimed at ITSCI to be unbalanced and unreasonable.”
“ITSCI standards are 100% aligned with recommendations on risk management laid out in the OECD due diligence guidance for responsible supply chains. Note that due diligence and management of risk is not equivalent to certification and ITSCI does not claim to provide assurance or certification.”
Kopp spent three years working with the German Development Corporation, where he said cracks were already beginning to show. He tells The Africa Report: “If companies and governments made stronger efforts, the situation could be much improved. What we have now often looks like a PR exercise by companies and for example, the EU conflict minerals regulation came with loopholes.”
Global Witnesses’ investigation looked at ITSCI’s scheme in the South Kivu and North Kivu provinces in DRC, as well as regions in Rwanda.
In Rwanda, where the scheme also operates, Global Witness estimates that for some years only about 10% of the minerals the country exported were actually extracted there, with the rest being smuggled from DRC.
Mining from areas prone to conflict often can pose issues as smugglers and illicit streams can often lead to unethical products. John Wachira, a mining engineer in the Department of Energy & Mining in Laikipia, Kenya is advocating for stricter regulation. He said, “The respective government[s] should provide skilled personnel to help artisanal miners. They should create a central hub for the mineral collection, with frequent site visits from the local governments.”
“Respective miners should provide an environmental plan that they should strictly adhere to before opening a mine. Centralisation of mineral markets can cut out cartels making the process less corrupt.”
The road to responsible sourcing
The systemic issue starts at the bottom says Kopp. “Miners earn very little. I think it’s really problematic that Western countries cannot impose on them a system which in theory should ensure responsible sourcing. But in practice, it really doesn’t work.”
“What I’ve clearly seen is, for example, the role of companies and smelters, which play a key role because they are in the supply chain. It’s difficult to ensure traceability after they kind of come together in the dynamics at the smelters point they play a key role and they could do much more. If the large manufacturers of electronics components and the downstream companies use their leverage and get involved and make clear that they don’t accept human rights abuses in their supply chains, they can have a real impact.”
This is not the first time that ethical mining in DRC has been flagged. Previously, in 2020, the UN reported that approximately 1.1 tonnes of gold mined in DRC was smuggled into countries along the eastern border. This practice is likely to cost the country potentially millions in revenue, as well as funding conflict and trafficking which this investigation proves, is still present in the country’s thriving industry.
International interest in precious minerals has the potential to create further illicit behaviour and security risks. In 2019, mine production of cobalt in the DRC totalled 100,000 metric tons, accounting for 70 per cent of global production. Cobalt, among other minerals, is essential to manufacturers like Tesla, as they are commonly used in modern technologies such as electric vehicles.
According to Dr Claude Kabemba, Executive Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch, improving mining regulation must be part of large-scale infrastructure improvements that value “conviction not convenience”. He said, “We’ve always been concerned with this in the east part of the country since 1998 with the first war.”
“We need to bring peace and the capacity of the state to control customs and borders, especially in the east where there is only artisanal mining. We hope that the DRC joining the East African Community can be a solution for the mineral trade. The solution needs to be internal to congo but the world needs to help public institutions to reform to control that – without that it’s impossible.”
The report officially recommends concrete steps to improve tracing and ethical practice in the region, including a “thorough, independent assessment of the implementation of the ITSCI scheme”, as well as imploring buyer companies to conduct their own due diligence and “avoid as far as possible reliance on assurances from industry schemes”.