Wrestling with conflict minerals

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Although you might not think so, it is more than likely that the issue of conflict minerals is relevant to you. If the product you design contains tin or tungsten, or any alloys containing them, then you are using conflict minerals.

Cassiterite and wolframite, their respective ores,are the conflict minerals in this case. Equally, if your products include any electronic gadgetry, then it is virtually certain that you will be using tin, and a good chance that you will also be using gold and tantalum (in capacitors). These four are deemed conflict minerals, irrespective of where they come from. If you live in Cornwall and dig up a lump of cassiterite in your garden it is still a conflict mineral – it is just a conflict mineral from a legitimate source.

Conflict minerals play a large part in funding violence, typified by the rebel armies in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to an International Rescue Committee report, the death toll in the DRC war since 1998 is over five million. Two American senators, Dodd and Frank, formed some legislation that bears their names to try and force American companies, and anyone in their supply chain, to take a responsible attitude towards buying these conflict minerals. This legislation is still rolling out, as is a softer approach in the EU. However, a large chunk of people who are potentially affected by the legislation remains ill informed.

More important is the effectiveness of the legislative programme, unquestionably well intentioned as it is. The problem comes from the perceived complexity of knowing from where certain elements of every component have been extracted. Theoretically the Smelter Programme, which means that the mine to smelter part of the process is verified by the smelter, should ease this problem.

But some companies have taken more radical steps. One is to not use any mineral that comes from DRC, legitimate or otherwise; another is to design out the four conflict minerals altogether. The problem with this of course is that in a country with not much going for it, DRC depends on its legitimate mineral wealth. The value of tin in DRC is now nearly half of what it was before the legislation was introduced, despite increases in the global price. The consequences are poverty, unrest and, potentially, more support for rebel forces.

So I am not saying that the legislation is bad, but that companies need to understand properly why it is there before they decide how to tackle the issue.

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