The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Going for Congo’s gold

Just in time for the holidays, the Enough Project, an advocacy group that has worked for years to stop war crimes in Congo by bringing attention to conflict minerals, is hoping that jewelry companies can play a large role in ensuring that the gold used for your 14-karat engagement ring isn’t contributing to the rape, killing and mass displacement of Congolese civilians. The group’s new campaign, titled “Look who’s getting engaged,” singles out Tiffany and Co. as well as Signet Jewelers (parent company of Jared, Kay Jewelers and Zales) as companies that have taken steps to introduce supply chain controls and contribute to on-the-ground projects to help Congolese affected by war and violence. Cartier, J.C. Penney and Target were also named as having taken steps toward more conscious gold sourcing.

Sorry. Shopping at Tiffany won’t help end Congo’s civil conflict.

Some brief background: Congo is one of the most resource-rich regions of the world. A number of the minerals harvested in Congo are essential for the world’s electronics, such as cellphones, microchips and computers. But despite Congo’s vast mineral wealth, most of the country’s population lives in poverty, and the country has been embroiled in what has been called the deadliest regional war since World War II, with an estimated 5 million deaths. Neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of fueling the conflict and exploiting Congo’s resources. Advocacy groups such as the Enough Project have long claimed that Congo’s minerals, especially tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (the so-called 3TG minerals), have been a fundamental driver of the conflict, as brutal rebel groups commandeer mines and use the profits to fuel their murderous campaigns. As international attention has been focused on the other three minerals, gold has risen as a source of income, the Enough Project says in its “Going for Gold” report.

In 2010, advocacy groups pushed for passage of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires all mineral companies registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose whether their minerals came from Congo and whether they have knowledge of the minerals being linked to armed conflict. Holly Dranginis, of the Enough Project, says, “We’ve seen enormous progress, particularly led by electronics companies, and there is still work to be done. We’re running with that momentum, encouraging companies and other stakeholders to continue their progress, and especially to support livelihood programs and finalize the 3T certification mechanisms that are so critical to building peace and ending criminal activity in Africa’s Great Lakes region.”

But critics of the Enough Project’s focus on conflict minerals and gold have argued that it misses the mark. An open letter signed by Congolese leaders and activists says: “While the minerals help perpetuate the conflict, they are not its cause. National and regional political struggles over power and influence as well as issues such as access to land and questions of citizenship are just some of the more structural drivers of conflict.” The minerals are just one resource among many that armed rebel groups — and the national army — profit from (the groups have turned to coal, for instance). The letter’s signatories charge that Congolese were not consulted on the formation of conflict minerals policy, which has “yet to lead to any meaningful improvement on the ground” and that Dodd-Frank has contributed to many Congolese losing their livelihoods through artisanal mining after companies decided to pull out of the region altogether.

Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese activist, said in an e-mail interview: “If section 1502 of Dodd-Frank was wildly successful, it would not address the two major structural challenges faced by the DRC, which is external intervention in the affairs of the DRC, and a government that lacks legitimacy among its citizens … It proposes industrialized mining as the alternative without addressing the disastrous effects of industrialized mining in the rest of the country. It is silent on environmental degradation, has nothing to say on the lopsided mining contracts that have left the Congolese people impoverished and dependent. It does nothing to address matters of resource sovereignty. It only calls for the clean functioning of a fundamentally flawed and unequal extractive process that has been en force for the past 125 years.”

The problem that advocates ignore is that while gold has long been a cause of exploitation for Congolese, the current exploitation comes not just from warlords, but also from multinational corporations and a lack of transparency. Adam Hochschild captured the essence of the problem with multinational gold corporations’ involvement in Congo in 2010:

AngloGold Ashanti recently finalized a series of agreements with the government under which it will begin mining here and at another major site in the northeast. At Mongbwalu, it will have an 86 percent share of the operation; the near-bankrupt former state mining company, now being privatized, will have the remainder. Four other multinationals—based in London, Canada, and South Africa—have likewise concluded closed-door agreements over mining rights.
No one will ever know what Congolese government officials may have reaped from these deals in the way of quietly promised jobs, favors, or money under the table, in a country where such rewards are routine. Representatives of local communities, meanwhile, found it hard to get a seat at the negotiating table.
Seldom, in fact, do local communities gain much from such agreements; that is part of the resource curse. This pattern is all the stronger in a place where the national government has as fragmentary a hold as it does here. A failed state fails its people in many ways, and one of them is that, in a world of powerful corporate players, a weak and corrupt government has no bargaining power.

The Enough Project’s report said that AngloGold Ashanti’s industrial mines are currently “conflict free.” But gold wealth that flows overseas without the consultation of local communities is not conflict-free gold. As long as Congo lacks a government able to translate the country’s mineral and gold wealth into prosperity for its people by the taxing and regulation of multinational “legal” mining, all gold has the potential to be conflict gold in the region. Artisanal mining and smuggling are a symptom of state failure and a total lack of resource sovereignty. “Livelihood programs” and charity donations are no panacea for when mining companies, say, bulldoze Congolese homes and the Congolese government covers it up.

There is no doubt that the extractive sector in Congo needs reform, and that doing so would reduce the local and international plundering in the country. But we deceive ourselves when we think African warlords with guns in one hand and gold in the other produce the only type of conflict gold. As long as Congo’s government remains weak, the mining executives in business suits also contribute to the problem.