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Story Publication logo May 22, 2024

The Problem With ‘Conflict-Free’ Minerals


people walk through a forest

Supply chain traceability schemes are failing to improve the lives of artisanal miners in the...


Safari Kulimuchi and his 28-year-old son, Olivier Kulimuchi, pose for a photo in Nyabibwe on July 4, 2023. Image by Mélanie Gouby/Foreign Policy. Democratic Republic of Congo.

How traceability schemes have wound up hurting Congo’s people.

Last February, as the sound of automatic weapons erupted in the early hours before dawn, Amina Museni hurriedly packed a bag while her husband, Joseph, shook their three children awake. They were joining a group of neighbors fleeing their hamlet as the front line between the Congolese army and rebels of the March 23 Movement, or M23, crept closer. For days afterward, they walked across the hilly landscape of Masisi, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, before reaching one of the camps that have sprung up around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. There, they pitched their tent, a young family of five among more than a million people displaced by the resurgence of a conflict that has ravaged Congo for nearly three decades.

When Foreign Policy visited the camp last July, Museni sat amid an undulating sea of white tarpaulins stretched over eucalyptus sticks. “When I was little, I lived in a tent with my parents,” Museni said, her youngest child, Nestor, cradled into her neck. “Now my children have to endure the same. It feels like a curse.”

Why Congo has been in a perennial state of upheaval since the mid-1990s has been the subject of much debate, but no other narrative has cut through as much as that of so-called conflict minerals. In the 2000s, the link between markets’ demand for minerals and the war in Congo helped bring attention to the conflict in an unprecedented way. Western organizations such as the Enough Project and Global Witness mobilized around the seductive proposition that the solution to one of the world’s deadliest conflicts was within the grasp of consumers and policymakers, triggering a series of laws and regulations beginning with, in the United States in 2010, Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The logic behind the legislation was simple. “Armed groups finance themselves through the exploitation of cassiterite, gold, coltan,” Fidel Bafilemba, a Congolese researcher who used to work for the Enough Project, told me at the time. “By stopping the export of these conflict minerals, we dry up their resources and lessen the violence.”

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Section 1502 required companies to conduct due diligence checks on their supply chain to disclose their use of minerals originating from Congo and neighboring countries and to determine whether those minerals may have benefited armed groups. The legislation didn’t outright ban the sourcing of minerals from mines contributing to conflict financing but instead intended “this transparency and its attendant reputational risk” to pressure companies to stop buying them voluntarily, according to Toby Whitney, one of the authors of Section 1502.

What followed is an important lesson for a world rushing to secure critical minerals for the energy transition. Western advocacy led to policies focused on derisking supply chains and virtue signaling to consumers, rather than improving artisanal miners’ living conditions or addressing the conflict’s root causes. That narrative continues today: An Apple store in Berlin was vandalized last week by Fridays for Future activists accusing the tech giant of sourcing so-called conflict minerals from Congo.

ITSCI, the region’s leading private traceability scheme, is facing criticism about the validity of its work—and that it has not improved the lives of artisanal miners in the region. ITSCI stresses its limited mandate and that it is working as intended. But in a cruel twist, the cost of the due diligence program has been shouldered by Congolese miners themselves, effectively asking the world’s poorest workers to pay for the right to sell their own resources to Western companies.

This week, industry leaders and activists gathering at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris for the annual Forum on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains will need to reassess their approach. “We welcomed Dodd-Frank,” said Alexis Muhima, a Congolese researcher, during a meeting in a cramped office in Goma. “But what it did is outsource complex issues to the private sector, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.”

Women work at a washing station at an artisanal mine near Kailo, in Congo’s Maniema province, on June 13, 2023. Often ignored by international policies and programs, women make up 50 percent of Congo’s mining workforce and take on important roles from washing the mineral sand to trading. Image by Mélanie Gouby/Foreign Policy. Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The Americans didn’t think this through.”

Safari Kulimuchi, mine worker

There was a time in the 1970s when the quarries of Nyabibwe, a mining town in South Kivu province, were run with enough capital to employ 500 workers and to invest in semi-industrial machinery. Every month, the French company in charge shipped 20 metric tons of cassiterite ore—a component of tin—back to Europe for cans, wires, and solder. Safari Kulimuchi was a worker at the mines, starting at age 17, who quickly rose through the ranks to become a manager. “It was an exciting time. … Things seemed to be working out,” Kulimuchi recalled to Foreign Policy over dinner in Nyabibwe. But, he said, “it didn’t last.”

In the years that followed, Kulimuchi witnessed the economic unraveling of Congo (then Zaire), rotten under decades of rule by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who presided over the country from 1965 to 1997. Amid a global economic downturn in the mid-1980s, the French company departed, abandoning its workers to fend for themselves. “Overnight, we had no wages, no tools, no structure,” Kulimuchi said. “We used to have a stone crusher. Now we had to crush rocks with a hammer.”

Nyabibwe was far from an exception. Across the country, as investment dried up and the state abdicated its responsibilities, people resorted to making ends meet any way they could. An informal economy based on débrouillardise, or resourcefulness, sprouted in the ruins of Mobutu’s derelict regime. That informal economy is estimated to account for more than 80 percent of Congolese economic activity today. Nyabibwe grew into a town as people came from far and wide to work in the mines. They replaced the industrial machinery with picks and shovels, a low-capital, labor-intensive extraction called artisanal mining, as opposed to industrial mining. “Artisanal mining is the heart of our economy. It’s the reason Nyabibwe became this big center,” Kulimuchi said. The World Bank estimated in 2008 that up to 16 percent of the Congolese population depended on the sector. “For us, it’s a lifeline,” Kulimuchi added.

Mobutu was finally ousted in 1997 by a coalition helmed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel army led by Paul Kagame. Kagame had just seized power in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide there and was intent on chasing after Hutus responsible for the massacres, many of whom had crossed into Zaire. What became the First Congo War brought Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a Congolese rebel, to power.

Kabila’s allies in the RPF quickly turned into foes when they refused to relinquish control over an area where instability threatened their security and interests. The Second Congo War began in 1998 with the creation of the RCD, a Tutsi-led, Rwandan-backed armed group that quickly gained control of a large swath of eastern Congo. The rebels began shipping cargo loads of coltan and cassiterite ores out of mines such as Nyabibwe’s into Rwanda just as the price of coltan, a key component of capacitors used in mobile phones and most electronic devices, soared with the demand for electronic goods at the turn of the century. A 2001 United Nations report estimated that Rwanda made at least $250 million during a temporary spike in prices in late 1999 and 2000. A popular formulation in Western campaigns at the time linked the violence in Congo to “blood phones.”

Many experts have criticized the advocacy of the 2000s for sometimes going so far as to suggest that conflict minerals were the root cause of the violence, painting armed actors as merely bloodthirsty, greedy militias—instead of considering real, historical grievances. The Enough Project campaigns, leaning hard on celebrities such as Robin Wright and Ryan Gosling to spread the group’s message, obfuscated the nuances of the conflict and the vital place of artisanal mining in the local economy. “The ‘conflict minerals’ label was problematic,” said Sophia Pickles, a former Global Witness campaigner and U.N. investigator. “This isn’t just about Congo—it’s a global issue.”

The campaigns succeeded in putting the issue on U.S. legislators’ agenda, but Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act was both too specific—singling out the so-called 3T minerals (tin for cassiterite, tantalum for coltan, and tungsten) in eastern Congo—and extremely vague on execution. It deferred the drafting of rules to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), leaving companies with no clear guidelines to report on their supply chain.

The law created a panicked scramble in the industry, said William Millman, a former technical director at Kyocera AVX, a leading manufacturer of electronic components and major coltan buyer. “Everybody was ignorant about the specifics. We just relied on our smelters.” Unlike an oil company directly operating its wells or a sneaker company outsourcing production to a sweatshop in Asia, electronics companies have virtually no way of knowing where the minerals in their products come from upstream of the smelters or refiners that have turned them into smooth metal—unless the smelters themselves know. “I visited all my suppliers to gather information. They knew very little because it was all largely bought on the spot market with international brokers,” Millman said. As a result of Section 1502, companies liable to fall under the SEC rule demanded that their suppliers simply stop buying from eastern Congo.

The result? A de facto embargo dropped like a bomb on the mining communities of North and South Kivu, just as the region was emerging from its latest cycle of violence. Nyabibwe had navigated two major wars mostly unscathed, but when I visited in June 2012, the town was in the midst of an existential crisis. Businesses dependent on the cash flow generated by the mines were closing down one by one, unable to sell stockpiles of rubber boots and shovels, blacksmithing services, or simply food. Tellingly, the local nightclub had shut its doors. More concerning were thousands of families’ insufficient funds to access health care, forcing women to give birth at home. One study found that the boycott increased the probability of infant mortality in affected mining communities by at least 143 percent.

Kulimuchi, who was then 54, was still managing a small team of undeterred miners. “The Americans didn’t think this through,” he said. His team had three metric tons of ore stored in a warehouse in Bukavu, South Kivu’s capital, waiting to be bought and shipped. “School is about to start again. Where are we going to find the money to send our children?”

Though U.S. lawmakers had struck out on their own with Section 1502, industrywide talks to create guidelines for the responsible sourcing of minerals in high-risk areas globally were already underway at the OECD. The OECD guidelines, adopted later in 2010, ended up becoming the foundation for the SEC rules, released in 2012. “The choke point in the supply chain is the smelters—everything has to go through them, and there aren’t many smelters in the world,” Millman said. “The OECD came up with a standardized protocol to audit and certify the smelters on an annual basis to know that they have control and knowledge of their supply chain.”

According to Millman, a handful of downstream companies seemed genuinely interested in doing things right and getting involved at the mine level. In 2011, together with Motorola and the Washington-based NGO Resolve, what was then AVX launched Solutions for Hope, a pilot project in Congo’s Katanga (now Tanganyika) province, where there was no conflict. They created a closed-pipe supply chain, sourcing from artisanal mines through a company that sold directly to a Chinese smelter and then onward to AVX, which manufactured components for Motorola and Hewlett-Packard.

Solutions for Hope also decided to hire the services of ITSCI. Its “bag and tag” traceability scheme set up by the International Tin Association (ITA) promised to trace minerals from the mine and guarantee their origin to buyers through a paper trail associated with sealed tags affixed on bags. According to Millman, Solutions for Hope was successful largely because its integrated supply chain bypassed traders and brought end-user companies closer to the miners. Replicating it would take time and effort. But, Millman said, “what other companies who had sat back saw was that, suddenly, with ITSCI there was a way for their CEOs and CFOs to sign off on their SEC statements. … And so everyone piled in, and it became the easy option.” ITSCI’s first project in eastern Congo was implemented in October 2012 in Nyabibwe.

An artisanal miner shovels mineral sand near Kailo on June 12, 2023. Image by Mélanie Gouby/Foreign Policy. Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Do you think these people stopped working?”

Maxie Muwonge, program manager for the International Organization for Migration 2013-2018

Ten years on from when we first met, Kulimuchi came down from the mountainside where he had been working with his son on a sunny day last July, his broad smile still intact. The mining site hadn’t changed much either. Around us, men wearing flip-flops were using the same basic tools to split the earth open, with no protective equipment.

Initially, Kulimuchi recalled, the artisanal miners had been relieved when a large delegation showed up to officially launch the traceability scheme. “It meant we could finally start selling again. All my financial worries would be a thing of the past,” Kulimuchi said he thought at the time.

Instead, an elaborate public-private bureaucracy emerged, driven in part by regional governments intent on bringing the artisanal mining sector under control but quickly superimposed by foreign private sector initiatives like ITSCI, responding to market demand for paperwork required by end-user companies to file their reports to the SEC.

“We started selling again, but it’s a cacophony. There is a ton of admin, taxes after taxes, and prices have gone down. We have been weakened by all this,” Kulimuchi said.

As the de facto embargo on eastern Congo’s minerals lifted, by 2012 thousands of small sites across the region found themselves effectively outlawed by a new mine site validation process. To be able to sell, Congolese mining sites must now be inspected by a delegation of government representatives, NGOs, and U.N. agencies. At sites given the go-ahead from that audit, the Congolese artisanal mining agency carries out its own checks while also tagging and recording the minerals in logbooks for ITSCI. There are other records kept by the provincial government’s Mining Division and a regional body. Many sites are still waiting for an audit. For those that don’t conform, the consequences are devastating: “You are destroying the livelihood of hundreds or thousands of people,” said Maxie Muwonge, who was a program manager for the International Organization for Migration between 2013 and 2018 when it was tasked with coordinating the validation process. “This excludes entire communities. What are they meant to do? Do you think these people stopped working?”

In fact, even under the de facto embargo, the minerals trade never really stopped. It just went further underground. Rwanda’s export statistics, which experts say don’t match its reserves, suggest that smuggling to neighboring countries spiked during the period. While the volume of trafficked minerals has fallen with the reopening of the legal market in eastern Congo, smuggling is still an issue, not least because of the market distortion caused by heavy regulation and taxation in Congo of small businesses. “Many collapsed because they couldn’t meet the requirements, and the investment in the sector decreased. It broke down artisanal miners even further,” Muwonge said.

Joyeux Mumpenzi followed in his mother’s footsteps when he decided to become a négociant, an intermediary who buys minerals from the creuseurs, or diggers, and transports them to export companies in large cities—a reflection of the highly organized division of labor in the artisanal sector. “To begin with, we have no say regarding the going price—the London Metal Exchange sets it, and it fluctuates constantly,” he said. “Then there are all the taxes, and finally, the export company retains a penalty on my payment for ITSCI.”

Today, 99 percent of ITSCI’s revenue comes from the levies it collects from upstream actors based on the volumes of minerals tagged and exported, ITSCI program manager Mickaël Daudin said in an interview. The organization says artisanal miners are not supposed to pay for the scheme. But the cost, or at least a percentage of it, is passed down the supply chain to the négociants and ultimately to the miners. “I have no choice” in doing so, Mumpenzi said. “I end up earning little more than they do, and I take huge financial risks.” The 33-year-old trader says he earns about $300 a month, while an artisanal miner’s household makes $200 on average.

ITSCI, which operates in both Congo and Rwanda, applies differentiated levies to businesses in the two countries. Daudin said that’s because “the cost of implementation … remains much higher” in Congo than in Rwanda but declined to disclose the levies’ rates; a Congolese government official called it a “conflict tax.” The rate discrepancy effectively encourages trafficking to Rwanda for Congolese mining operators keen to increase their margins.

A report published in 2022 by Global Witness cited “[s]ome industry sources” alleging that ITSCI was in fact set up to facilitate the laundering of Congolese minerals smuggled into Rwanda. Foreign Policy hasn’t been able to confirm the claim, but the tagging system that ITSCI created does offer the perfect cover for smuggling, in Rwanda or Congo. The integrity of the scheme relies entirely on the integrity of the people implementing it; the tags themselves offer no guarantee. In a statement released in response to the report, ITSCI wrote that it “strongly rejects all Global Witness’ stated or implied allegations of wrongdoing, facilitating deliberate misuse of ITSCI systems or illegal activity.” If ITSCI had aimed to maximize smuggling into Rwanda as alleged, a spokesperson wrote to Foreign Policy in an email, “ITSCI would not have launched in Katanga in 2011 nor in any other adjoining locations at other times. During 15 years of implementation, ITSCI has continued to expand the programme in [Congo], now supporting more than 1,500 sites across 8 Provinces.”

The Global Witness report also documented how the system can be breached without ITSCI’s cooperation. For starters, the tagging is not performed by ITSCI but by Congolese government agents who earn less than the miners themselves and sometimes go for months without pay at all. From bribing agents to trading in tags, the number of ways to circumvent the system is almost limitless—as Mumpenzi demonstrated to Foreign Policy. The négociant stood up from the sofa in his living room and walked to a corner where sturdy white plastic bags had been stacked. “See the tags? The bags were sealed by an agent before I picked them up yesterday,” he said. “The mineral sand now has to be washed, so when I’ll bring the bags to the washing station, the tags will be removed. When minerals are washed, the weight goes down, so this is a perfect time to smuggle in minerals before a new tag goes on. As long as the bag weighs less than it did initially, no one will say anything.”

ITSCI doesn’t rebuke such allegations categorically. The organization says it was aware of many of the incidents documented by Global Witness and had already addressed them. “The program isn’t perfect. There are issues, and there always will be,” Daudin told Foreign Policy. “But from my point of view, it wasn’t better before.”

Kulimuchi and other artisanal miners might beg to differ. Rather than improving their living conditions, the “increasing regulation of the artisanal mining sector and responsible sourcing efforts, have rather had a negative overall effect on the socio-economic position of artisanal miners,” analysts at the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), a leading minerals research institute, wrote in 2019. Guillaume de Brier, a researcher at IPIS, told me that “working in an ITSCI or a non-ITSCI site doesn’t change anything. Conditions are dismal in both cases. There’s no difference in terms of child labor, and miners don’t earn more.”

When asked by Foreign Policy about this criticism, an ITSCI spokesperson stressed the organization’s limited mandate as a traceability and due diligence not-for-profit initiative. “It does not function as a certification mechanism,” the spokesperson wrote, and the organization’s focus “does not extend to working conditions.”

However, evidence suggests that responsible sourcing efforts have failed to shift conflict dynamics. A 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), part of its mandate to evaluate the impact of Section 1502, was titled “Conflict Minerals: Overall Peace and Security in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo Has Not Improved Since 2014.” Violence has instead risen, remaining “relatively constant from 2014 through 2016 but steadily [increasing] from 2017 through 2021,” GAO wrote.

Arguably, some measure of progress has been achieved at the 3T mining sites targeted by Dodd-Frank, where the presence of armed groups has decreased. But while ITSCI claims to have played a role, de Brier says the scheme merely implanted in sites where the situation was already better. Overall, this demilitarization has largely been the result of Congolese policies and the evolution of conflict dynamics themselves: The defeat of the M23 rebellion in 2013 (the armed group changed names multiple times as it successively integrated into and rebelled against the national army) led to the dismantling of one of the country’s most predatory mafia networks. Today, for instance, Bisie, once an iconic mining site under the control of Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, is operated by the Canadian company Alphamin. (Ntaganda is serving a 30-year prison sentence in Belgium following his conviction by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.)

Now though, with the resurgence of the M23 rebellion since November 2021—which has displaced Museni, her family, and more than 2.5 million others—even that small measure of progress is under threat.

Fiston Mweze, an agent of the Congolese artisanal mining agency, works on his computer at his office in Nyabibwe on July 5, 2023. Traceability programs rely on implementation by state agents but offer the agents no financial compensation. Image by Mélanie Gouby/Foreign Policy. Democratic Republic of Congo.

“This is how the armed groups are paid.”

Congolese researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity

Belgian colonial administration profoundly altered the Congolese relationship with the land, introducing private ownership and displacing people for commercial exploitation. Since independence, who has the right to own land—and by extension its resources—has remained an unresolved existential question. “The main resource driving conflict isn’t coltan,” said Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It is the land. It’s material ownership, of course, but also who has a legitimate right to be here.”

In the borderlands of eastern Congo, these questions have been exacerbated by intertwined histories with neighboring countries. Hutus and Tutsis, who arrived from Rwanda in successive waves throughout the 20th century—first brought by Belgian colonialists to work on plantations in the territories of Rutshuru and Masisi—have struggled to find acceptance and secure land rights. Rwanda, meanwhile, a small, densely populated country with little resources of its own, largely depends on economic ties and access to Congo’s resources. These two dynamics have helped create the vicious circle of the last three decades. Backed by Rwanda, the RCD rebellion and its successors claiming to fight for Tutsis’ rights have helped entrench tensions along ethnic lines while facilitating land grab by a small elite.

“Indigenous communities in Masisi were dispossessed of their land during the war,” said Janvier Murairi, a Congolese researcher. “Today’s farm and mine owners are people who had links to the RCD. Everything from Mushaki to Masisi town belongs to hardly more than 10 people.”

One such owner was Edouard Mwangachuchu, an aspiring Tutsi politician and a member of the RCD’s political branch, who was awarded a concession covering seven mines in Rubaya by the rebel administration in 2001. Two years later, the Sun City Agreement, a peace deal negotiated between rebel factions with little regard for social justice or community grievances, endorsed Mwangachuchu’s ownership over the mining sites as a prize of war for the RCD, granting his company, MHI (now SMB), control over what have become the most productive sites at Congo’s largest coltan mine. Today, Rubaya accounts for about 15 percent of global coltan production.

Rubaya is emblematic of the way ITSCI, and more broadly due diligence as it is practiced today, treats “conflictual issues, such as concessions and land ownership, … as a black box,” Christoph N. Vogel writes in his 2022 book, Conflict Minerals Inc., turning a blind eye to political issues around social justice and equity, even as those are drivers of the violence it means to help prevent.

In Rubaya, Mwangachuchu’s plan to turn the quarries into an industrial mine spurred a backlash from local communities. “The artisanal miners didn’t accept that this family [the Mwangachuchus] who had come into the possession of the mines through the conflict could take away their livelihood,” Murairi said. The government mediated a deal: The miners were allowed to continue mining SMB sites but had to sell exclusively to the company.

ITSCI began operating in Rubaya in 2014, tagging minerals from both SMB and peripheral sites belonging to a state-owned mining company, SAKIMA. But the situation unraveled as the scheme was embroiled in a tit-for-tat commercial war in the years that followed.

Suspecting that ITSCI’s tags were being used to launder the sale of its minerals to a rival trading company, SMB eventually turned to ITSCI’s main competitor in the tag-and-bag business, Better Mining. The move should have represented a major financial blow to ITSCI, the loss of roughly half its revenues for Congo. Instead, as production at the SAKIMA sites kept growing while SMB’s dwindled, ITSCI’s business was preserved. According to an internal U.N. report provided to Foreign Policy, “Only about seventeen percent of the production that officially originates from the SAKIMA concession has in fact been mined there.” The report noted that “[s]uch discrepancy between official data and reality is only conceivable if a structured mechanism of fraud is established.”

Daudin, the ITSCI program manager, responded that ITSCI is “confident about its data.” He argued that the production increase was due to the higher level of investment going to SAKIMA sites when local miners turned away from SMB.

The M23’s resurgence dealt the last blow to Mwangachuchu, who was arrested in March 2023 and charged with treason after weapons were allegedly found on the grounds of his company’s facilities in Rubaya. According to the prosecutor, Mwangachuchu intended to support the M23 rebellion. The government has since revoked SMB’s mining permits. Few people in North Kivu will feel sorry for Mwangachuchu, “but one of the protagonists was pushed out in favor of the other, and that never works,” said Achile Kitsa, a former private secretary to the provincial mines minister.

The Congolese army took full control of Rubaya last spring, leaving the former SMB concession at the mercy of local armed groups it used as proxies on the front line against the M23. “This is how the armed groups are paid,” said a Congolese researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity. ITSCI resumed its operations in June, tagging minerals from the SAKIMA perimeter up until November, when the road was cut off by the fighting, according to Daudin. “We relaunched our activities after evaluating each site with the government services,” he said in July. “There are no nonstate armed groups in our sites.”

In a December report, the U.N. Group of Experts on Congo contradicted Daudin, establishing that between June and November, the “production from [the former SMB] sites was either smuggled to Rwanda or laundered into the official supply chain using [ITSCI] tags for minerals produced in [the SAKIMA concession], where mining activities were still authorized.”

“ITSCI recognizes that there have been, and remain, ongoing risks regarding fraud and presence of both non-state and state armed groups in the area of Masisi territory, North Kivu,” the ITSCI spokesperson wrote. “These risks are regularly reported through ITSCI’s OECD-aligned systems.”

Muhima, the Congolese researcher, sees the possibility of tainted minerals in the ITSCI supply chain as inevitable, given its built-in conflict of interest. “Their income depends on the volume they export. They cannot stop tagging minerals, or their business will collapse.”

Artisanal miners work in Nyabibwe’s Kalimbi mine on July 4, 2023. Image by Mélanie Gouby/Foreign Policy. Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We don’t need another scheme.”

Janvier Murairi, a Congolese researcher

Congolese activists were not pleased with the Global Witness report exposing the shortcomings of ITSCI when it was published in 2022. They felt that the research mostly rehashed criticisms and evidence that they had presented for many years without being listened to and that the report failed to draw the necessary conclusions, ending with tepid recommendations to reform ITSCI or consider options to replace it with another independent scheme. “We don’t need another scheme,” Murairi said. “We don’t need more foreigners who think Congolese can’t do anything.”

Global Witness’s cautiousness should perhaps not come as a surprise. The activist organization played no small part in paving the way for today’s conundrum, and the risk of triggering another de facto embargo on Congolese minerals hangs heavy. “We’ve learnt some very difficult lessons, and as an activist, I’m not the one who bore the consequences of bad policymaking,” said Pickles, the former Global Witness campaigner.

When I pressed Daudin last July about ITSCI’s resumption of its activities in Rubaya, even as armed groups were swarming the mining area, he dodged: “If we don’t start tagging again, mining communities will be the first ones to suffer from not being able to carry on their activities.”

ITSCI suffered a major setback in October 2022, when the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), a member association of more than 400 of the world’s largest corporations, announced that it was taking the scheme off its list of recognized upstream due diligence mechanisms. ITSCI had failed to submit an independent assessment of its alignment with the OECD guidelines in time. When the organization eventually released an independent audit in June 2023, it failed to assess ITSCI’s activities in Congo, focusing solely on coltan production in Rwanda. The RMI has offered to pay for three site visits in Congo, including in Rubaya, but ITSCI has so far not agreed. (“Site visits outside alignment assessments are not explicitly required,” said the ITSCI spokesperson, who noted the terms of such a visit are nonetheless under negotiation with RMI.)

“They are holding everyone hostage,” an industry insider close to the RMI process told Foreign Policy. “There is so much pressure on the RMI to capitulate and say we need this system. But this isn’t a technical issue.” To many experts and industry insiders, the resurgence of the M23 conflict has at least had the benefit of clarifying the situation. “The system cannot withstand what it was built for. It can’t withstand the conflict. We are back to square one.”

Breaking ITSCI’s quasi-monopoly is often presented as the solution in minerals circles, but SMB’s switch to Better Mining solved none of the problems in Rubaya and only created more confusion. Better Mining’s for-profit business model and its reliance on technology make it hard to scale and mean it is explicitly designed for larger companies with capital, not artisanal miners. “The problem with all these initiatives is that no one is there to control them,” said de Brier, the IPIS researcher.

Who is supposed to exert this control is part of the problem. Much like the fragmented nature of the supply chain, the nebulous ecosystem of public and private actors involved in responsible sourcing means that responsibility befalls no one in particular. In a July 2023 report, the GAO noted that the number of companies filing conflict minerals disclosures to the SEC had been steadily declining year-on-year since 2014, in part because “companies perceive that they are unlikely to face enforcement action by the SEC if they do not comply.”

Pickles noted that, unlike Dodd-Frank, the European Union’s own conflict minerals regulation, which came into force in 2021, avoided the trap of focusing only on Congo but equally fell for industry schemes such as ITSCI. “I’ve spoken to the competent authorities of three member states, and they said that the reports they receive from companies don’t tell them anything. They don’t actually know what’s happening along the supply chain,” she said. “So where does that leave us?”

For Congolese, ending this hypocrisy is a necessary first step but requires trust and support on the part of international partners. “The Congolese government has its own traceability system. All the necessary documents are delivered by Congolese state agencies. They tell you where the minerals come from just as reliably as ITSCI’s tags, which is to say it’s not perfect but it’s no worse,” Muhima said. “The same state agents deliver these documents and implement ITSCI’s program—for free I might add, since ITSCI doesn’t pay for them. What needs to be improved urgently is their payment.”

These lessons are relevant beyond the specifics of the 3T supply chain. The attention around cobalt—the conflict mineral du jour thanks to its use in electric vehicle batteries—is a case in point. While there is no conflict in the area where cobalt is extracted, working conditions and child labor have been discussed in much the same way as conflict minerals were back in the 2000s: in decontextualized and sometimes inaccurate reports that fail to examine the complex ways in which minerals interact with people’s livelihoods. Instead, such reports paint artisanal mining as illegitimate, something to eliminate. They have been used to justify land grab by large mining companies whose supply chains are easily traceable for end-user companies.

“We haven’t learned from our experience with diamonds or 3T minerals. With cobalt, it’s as if those experiences never existed,” said Joanne Lebert, the executive director of IMPACT, a nonprofit organization working on natural resource governance. “Instead of supporting communities, we’re just monitoring. There is no connection in my view between a clean supply chain and governance and security outcomes. Maybe you take kids out of your supply chain, but they’ll go to agriculture, to domestic work. They’ll go to another mine. They’ll sneak in at night. Clean supply chain is about eliminating the risk and not necessarily about doing good. And it’s the doing good we have to get at.”

Following the same pattern, an EU law aimed at preventing products linked to deforestation from entering the European market is pushing coffee companies toward industrial producers able to generate the paperwork and sidelining small farmers from Ethiopia to Brazil. Private companies will always take the shortcut, while black markets, exploitation, and conflict feed on exclusion.

Whether Western consumers like it or not, artisanally mined minerals will continue to find their way into the supply chains that fuel the energy transition and consumer products. Investing in mining communities’ welfare, education, and businesses is indispensable.

Museni is still living in the refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma with her husband and young children. Surrounded, the provincial capital has been struggling to absorb and provide for the constant new waves of displaced families reaching the city as the M23 is inching closer.

Even as evidence of Rwanda’s support to the rebellion has been mounting, the country has still not been sanctioned. In February, the EU signed an agreement “to nurture sustainable and resilient value chains for critical raw materials” with the Rwandan government, calling the country “a major player on the world’s tantalum extraction.” Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi described the deal as a “provocation in very bad taste.”

In Nyabibwe, Kulimuchi took me on a final walk around the town, waving around at the myriad businesses and hard-working people in the streets. “No one here has a bank account, for example. We can’t save. We can’t build,” he said. “We don’t require much—a road to Bukavu, a little boost, you know. Then, we’ll take it from there.”


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