Clean Coltan?

Over at Foreign Policy, Africa activist and celebrity-whisperer John Prendergast says there is a “Light at The End of the Tunnel in Congo“. Prendergast thinks the two bills before the House and Senate about extractive mineral regulation in the DRC and increasing consumer consciousness about coltan could radically change the dynamics of the conflict. Why?

For decades, this illegal economy has thrived in the shadows. Atrocities committed against Congo’s civilian populations are both a means of social control and retribution for the perceived support of military (and hence commercial) opponents. It’s all about controlling the minerals and gaining a handsome profit. And until this logic of unaccountable, violent, illegal mineral extraction changes, all the peacekeepers and peacemakers in the world will have very little impact on the levels of violence there.

But, what’s the mechanism at work that changes this reality?

If these stars align, it may well be the opportunity that Congo needs to finally bring transparency, legality, and security to its minerals trade. Together, all this would fundamentally alter the incentives that are today fueling conflict. Commercial actors might change their behavior, worried that a potential boycott would cut profits and make things more difficult for everyone who is currently benefiting. Central African governments could clean up their act or face International Criminal Court indictments, United Nations sanctions, and other scarlet letters. Electronics and jewelry companies would demand best practices or face increasing negative publicity about their “hear no evil, see no evil” mentality when it comes to the cries of Congo’s women and girls.

Prendergast is on shaky ground. While consumer activism can be powerful, it rarely stops wars, especially when luxury goods with substitutes aren’t the target. Which is why coltan is entirely different from diamonds. There is no good substitute for coltan, which is a super-conductor found in near all technology. Consumers can’t voice their power over industry by opting-out of the market.  Prendergast isn’t going to stop making cell phone calls because he can’t and because he can’t, consumer activism becomes mere tokenism.

Compounding the inability to make consumer activism credible is the fact that coltan is alluvial. Mining coltan does not require intensive industry. Rather, small shops can set up fairly profitable extractive rings, which are mobile and require little capital. Regulating these types of industries effectively is like playing the whac-a-mol game – as soon as one provider is regulated, he’ll be forced to leave in order to compete with other providers.

This makes it nearly impossible to effectively certify coltan in the same way diamonds were certified by the Kimberely process. In other words, the idea of genocide-free cell phones is basically whimsical. Prendergast does get the underlying argument right: you have to change the incentives on the ground to stop the war. However, catchy activism isn’t enough, you’ve actually got to understand the economics behind the argument.


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10 responses to “Clean Coltan?

  1. We should start a “Prendergrast, give up your phone.” campaign.

  2. Sam

    you have not made a clear distinction between coltan and diamonds. Diamonds too can be alluvial If you don’t think coltan can be traced, please say why. If you don’t think it can regulated, please say why. If you think it can be traced and regulated but don’t think that will prevent violence, please say why.

  3. Mike

    Sam, for what it is worth, I would argue that the main distinction between what is going on DRC and the diamonds in West Africa and Angola is the funding mechanism — armed groups are taxing artisanal miners in DRC. This is different from in Angola, where UNITA was stocking and selling diamonds themselves, or the “Blood Diamond” movie where people were mining at gunpoint.

    If I understand the logic of the new tracing movement’s impact on the ground, it is: reduce demand for minerals from rebel areas -> reduce the amount of money miners have in these areas -> reduce the ‘tax’ base -> Reduce bad guy resources. This is different from the causal chain of reducing demand -> reducing bad guy resources. UNITA stocked diamonds; the FDLR stocks money.

    The moderate success of the second causal chain does not prove the effectiveness of the first. For example, rebels can tax other things, like the CNDP did for a long time. And, even if it were effective, it will have an adverse effect on the miners (who mine for their livelihoods vs mine at gunpoint), at least until the mines are regularized. Maybe this is an acceptable short term effect, maybe not.

    But to come to Sam’s question, even if if this strategy was effective, it is much harder to regulate in a way to bring it about. Because the targeted group (the FDLR) neither buys nor sells minerals, the people on both ends (esp buyers at point-of-purchase) are interchangeable. As soon as one buyer is banned, his cousin or wife starts a new company and does the same; hence the whack-a-mol analogy.

    It is also worth noting the scale that we’re talking about — Angola was moving $400 million in diamonds a year at their peak. I’d be surprised if the FDLR has a tenth of that much in all their revenue combined. As for the alluvial-ness of diamonds, I don’t know about West Africa but in Angola, UNITA-controlled alluvial sites had largely run dry by the mid-1990s, without river diversions or other investments; the later push was in kimberlite.

  4. Mike, would you do a guest post making these points over at my blog? If you’d consider it, please shoot me an email (texasinafrica(AT)yahoo)

    (Sorry for poaching your readers, Grant.)

  5. Not to get all pro-ENOUGH or something, but I’m not sure this is all as hopeless as you make it sound. One, as I recall from a program at CIC last month, Jason Stearns is pro regulating (and all tht entails), and he’s a smart dude. He comes off sounding smarter about this stuff than Prendergast, anyway.

    Two, even if coltan can be mined in small shops, there is demand for industrial coltan mining as long as the price (demand) is high enough. Until it shut down its mine, wasn’t Australia was the biggest coltan producer in the world?

    Two-b: So if this “clean minerals” thing took off, it could shift demand for clean minerals enough that industrial mines have a market again. I confess I think that would be pretty cool. And it doesn’t seem impossible, although it would require new regulation or serious CSR.

    Three, as an aside, why does the conflict cell phones thing seem to assume that the demand for electronics — or rather, the material that goes into them — is static? I’d bet it isn’t. I don’t know what the effect of that is, but I’d be interested to find out.

  6. Mike

    Hi Jina:

    I don’t think anyone is against regulating, per se. If the congolese gov’t can put some law and order into their mining sector, that can only be better for everyone — the miners, the country, the economy. If I understood stearns’ paper, he was more interested in local regulation — not really Congressional legislation — and that would probably have more effect. But even so, I would make a few points:

    Artisanal mining is bigger than the FDLR. If we are talking seriously about minerals governance in the DRC, regulation, capacity building, or some combination of those things, it is a shame to only focus on two provinces, in mines affected by one rebel group. Lots of bad stuff happens in artisanal mines all over – Katanga, Ituri, etc and lots of good stuff (environmental standards, reinvestment) could happen but do not. Reforms or enforcement be also aimed at making artisanal mining profitable and good, not just at stopping bad stuff.

    The FDLR is bigger than Artisanal mining. Someone argued (maybe Prendergast?) that minerals provided a cushion for the FDLR that makes it hard to defeat them. This is true. Minerals are an enormous facilitating factor, but aren’t a sine qua non for the existence of rebels; other rebel groups operated in the region without mineral wealth (the LRA, the FNL). Minerals certainly play a contributing role, but changing military facts on the ground seem to be the key ingredient, minerals are just the yeast.

    The enormous investment in time and money required, the lag-time, and the uncertain scale of impact, particularly beginning at the international level and working down to the local level seems to me to make international regulation a bad centerpiece for the warfighting strategy; local regulation would help more; encouraging local cooperation among the different institutions that have an interest in seeing law and order return to the mines — including the gov’t, FARDC, miners themselves, and even most mineral buyers — would probably help most particularly in the short-term. The rebels by their mere existence already impose all sorts of taxes direct, and indirect, on the economic fortunes of both buyers and sellers. While regulation would increase those costs, helping the parties work together to work with the gov’t on their already existing mutual self interest could be done rather quickly.

    It also seems to me that crafting or enforcing national mining regulation for the specific case of the FDLR makes for bad economic and social policy. What if US Farm policy was rewritten with the goal of stamping out White Supremacism? Perhaps that isn’t the best analogy, but that is the general sense…

  7. Hi everyone,
    thanks for this extremely interesting discussion! I have used this case as an example on a blog post I have made on the “fractures” of the global economy (using anthropologist C. Nordtrom’s terminology). I think this case is relevant because it shows the numerous grey areas (both geographical and more abstract ones) that are created by the global economy.
    I am no expert on coltan, or the Congo but it seems to me in all global economic processes the distinction between legal and illegal it extremely blurry. This has greatly increased over the past few years as global de-regulation has taken place.
    Thus certifying “clean coltan” will in my opinion have little impact (I agree with Mike). Furthermore, who will enforce this? Would it be a Kimberly-like process (as the one with diamonds?)? Will we rely on Kinshsha to put some order on this? Or are we asking the FDLR to set up a separate (internationally supervised) “clean mining rebel division”, and in the process enhance his international credibility?

  8. These are great points, Mike. But are these mutually exclusive choices? Wouldn’t it be possible to require companies bring things in to the US “clean” — and to follow the crumbs you’ve laid, encouraging local cooperation and local regulation? This is a bigger question than coltan et al, I think; this is a question about whether Congressional action or other US policy can meaningfully magnify (or pressure) local work, mechanisms and institutions. I think it’s probably not easy, but I imagine it can be done. My point really is that I think we can be realistic about the limitations while also finding a way to make different policy levers work. But maybe not. I don’t work in policy, or in Congo…

    One other thing : Whatever mutual interest the Congolese government, the mining companies and the rowdy American advocate may share, the Congolese government isn’t the most reliable of partners in this. However much it may desire to get this under control, it hasn’t and can’t — this looks to me like both a political and a capacity problem, but I’m no expert. On the other hand, when I was reporting in Goma in 2008, I heard multiple reports of the Congolese national army colluding with the FDLR to tax the minerals (and the locals) and smuggle them however they smuggle them. So if Kinshasa’s interest is in controlling the problem, its foot soldiers have a greater economic interest in continuing the status quo.


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