Consumers Ending Conflict

Consumers Ending Conflict
Consumers Ending Conflict
Theo's partnership with Congo: Theo Chocolate Founder Joe Whinney sharing cacao with Congolese farmers. | Photo: Theo Chocolate | Conflict Minerals, Congo, Cacao Farmer,

Hope and opportunity for the people of Congo

"' love is' about a way of living and honoring interconnectedness of life and accepting our responsibility and our power to change the world for the better."'Julia "Butterfly" Hill, American activist and environmentalist

Love is often expressed with gifts: chocolate, jewelry, perhaps electronics. However, we are rarely conscious of the origins of these gifts: cacao beans, gold, minerals, and most importantly, the people who harvest, and the process in which, these raw materials are made into symbols of affection, raw materials often found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), raw materials associated with slavery and exploitation. In 2012, the DRC was ranked the lowest on the United Nations Human Development Index. However, there is hope for the Congolese people, as companies are taking the responsibility to ensure human rights in the DRC, but to also create opportunities for the citizens.

The DRC has been afflicted with corruption and war, due to lucrative natural resources that are found in our electronics. According to Raise Hope for Congo, a campaign of the Enough Project (which fights to end genocide and crimes against humanity by mobilizing diverse communities to demand change), aspires to build a permanent constituency of activists, advocating for human rights of all Congolese citizens, working to end the continuing conflict in eastern Congo. The war in eastern Congo began in the early 1990s, due to Congo's abundance of natural resources, yielding instability in the area, as militias commit egregious violations of human rights; most atrocious acts include mass rape against women (as a means to intimidate and control local populations) and the use of child soldiers, used as a "deliberate strategy' [in] securing control of mines, trading routes, and other strategic areas."

The mineral resources finance militia groups, earning hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the trading of four imperative minerals: gold, and ores which produce tin, tantalum, tungsten, the "3-T" minerals. The funds enable the militias to purchase vast numbers of weapons to continue their atrocities of violence among civilians, where some of the worst abuses occur in mining areas. The predicament is that the majority of these minerals are used to manufacture our electronic devices, such as cell phone, portable music players, and computers.

According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who helps people in the "world's worst humanitarian crises," an estimated 5.4 million people have died since 1998 due to conflict and poverty. In a 2007 survey, of the estimated 727,000 fatalities, half were among children under the age of five; the vast majority dying due to disease and malnutrition; afflictions due to the war, observes Sasha Lezhnev, Senior Policy Analyst of The Enough Project. As described by Global Witness, who investigates and campaigns to prevent conflicts and corruption originating from natural resources and the consequent environmental and human rights abuses, seven baseline evaluations of artisanal mining communities in eastern Congo illustrated that "population displacement and access to land and markets' contribute to the poverty and hardships endured by mining communities in North and South Kivu' [as] armed group activities often had the greatest impact on daily life."

To Lezhnev, "consumers have an incredibly valuable role in ending the world's deadliest war," replete with mass murder, rape, and slavery. Historically, eastern Congo's means of economy was in farming; however, once the natural minerals were discovered, the farmers were displaced by armed groups, war lords, and other criminal networks, exploiting the resources for profit.

In efforts to create company accountability within the supply chain, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act was signed into law in July of 2012; Section 1502 stipulates companies who report to the Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC), in regards to the materials they use in electronics, to report if those materials originated from Congo or its neighboring countries, where the burden of proof shifts, as the companies are responsible in finding the origins of where their suppliers source. American companies must ensure the raw materials they use in their products are not connected to the conflict in Congo, by tracing and auditing their mineral supply chains, according to The Enough Project.

If the minerals did originate in Congo or a neighboring country, additional reporting is required, where the company must report on the measures they have taken to practice due diligence on their source and chain of custody of the minerals. Companies must also provide independent verification of these measures through an independent, private sector audit. To Lezhnev, it is a "landmark piece of legislation to hold corporations accountable for turning a blind eye" to their process in buying their minerals, as these companies are now legally bound. The legislation will partially be implemented in 2014, as companies begin to provide their reports in May of 2014.

The key to conflict-free minerals is in the tech companies knowing, and exerting pressure on their smelters (to ensure the origins of the minerals), according to Lezhnev, as the smelters function on one simple concept: "if there is no audit, companies will not purchase from us." Of the 200 worldwide smelters, 54 have been audited and determined to be conflict-free. Major electronics companies have taken the initiative, such as HP publishing the names of their smelters.

As certification is essential in the guarantee of conflict-free electronics, major electronic companies have taken the initiative to source conflict-free minerals. In July of 2011, Motorola Solutions Inc (an AVX Corporation, a leading tantalum capacitor manufacture) launched Solutions for Hope Project, a pilot in sourcing conflict-free tantalum from the DRC; tantalum is used in capacitors for electronic products, according to the Conflict-free tantalum will pass through several steps before being place into products, where the process begins at the mine. The mines used in the project were the Mai Baridi, Kisengo and Luba mines in the northern part of the Katanga province in the DRC. Mining Minerals Resources SPRL (MMR) has the rights to the concessions, contracting with Coop?rative Des Artisanaux Miniers du Congo (CDMC), a mining co-op to manage the artisanal miners at the mine. The minerals are collected, weighed, and logged as part of the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi) traceability process, by a local SEASCAM agent, the minerals are transported to an MMR depot in Kalemie, DRC for export; AVX then takes ownership of the minerals "and for the pilot paid global market (Metal Pages) pricing so that the majority of the money remains in the region." The minerals are then transported to the F&X Electro-Materials Limited smelter in Guangdong, China, who processes the material in tantalum powder and wire for AVX, which is then shipped to AVX's facility in the Czech Republic to be made into tantalum capacitors. The capacitors are shipped to manufacturing operations, then incorporated into products produced by Motorola Solutions, as well as others who participated in the pilot.

Royal Philips, as well as Motorola Solutions Inc, has taken part in the Conflict Free Tin Initiative, sourcing conflict-free tin in the province of South Kivu in October of 2012, as described by, as "A conflict-free mining sector is not possible without a credible traceability and due diligence system operating in the region." The pilot aims to give insight in how the program works and how it can be sustainable, and therefore expanded. Most importantly, it will signal to the market that conflict-free minerals can be sourced from the eastern DRC. The project builds on a traceability and due diligence mechanism, the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi), and a Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program, with three phases: the identification of a conflict-free mine and tracking of the minerals from mine to the smelter; linking with the Conflict-Free Smelter Program; and building a downstream demand.

The Government of the DRC works with partners to validate the mines and conflict free, through audits done every few months; partners included the German Geological Service (BRG) and MONUSCO area security, as the traceability and due diligence was developed by the iTSCi, providing traceability by tagging minerals from conflict free mines to exporters, following their transport to traders and smelters, as due diligence is performed at each stage, operating across all cassiterite tantalite (tin ore) and wolframinte (tungsten ore) mines in the region. The Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) Program enables companies purchasing from smelters to source audited conflict-free minerals, as the Conflict Free Tin Initiative has partnered with a smelter who is in the process of being designated as "compliant" under the CFS Program. The CFS Program determines if the smelter has demonstrated that all the materials they processed had originated from conflict-free sources. This tracking and smelting of conflict free tin is reliant upon the market, where buyers must be willing to support the initiative's long term objectives.

Although the mining of the minerals will remain an important component in the Congolese economy, it is equally important to diversify their economy, such as the development of small businesses and small farms. Lezhnev remains optimistic, stating, if the peace process among the region is successful, through minerals traded in a peaceful way, "people can have all types of opportunity," but the war is the largest challenge for these opportunities.

The goal is not to boycott the minerals from eastern Congo, but rather to create more transparency in the supply chain, ensuring those minerals do not contribute to the conflict, as the "critical aspect of this effort is severing the link between the minerals trade and the armed groups committing atrocities in Congo," as described by The Enough Project. The artisanal miners work in difficult conditions, earning an average of $1-5 per day, as the armed groups exploit the enormous profits; the UN Group of Exports stated that "nearly every mine in the eastern DRC is militarized." Ensuring product are conflict-free, companies contribute to excluding the armed groups from the supply chains, as well as creating an incentive for mineral traders to reform their practices, contributing to legitimate trade, which benefits the Congolese people, not the criminal networks.

Lezhnev continues, currently, the DRC is in a state of flux, where some areas are experiencing greater stability, focusing on farming, with the help of international pressure on the armed groups, as well as the Dodd-Frank legislation. Communities experiencing instability include those in the gold mining areas, as it has become difficult for the armed groups in the region to sell the "3-T" minerals, therefore, turning to gold, as the price of gold has risen exponentially, and the ease of smuggling it in small pouches, becoming "the most lucrative conflict mineral for armed groups in eastern Congo," according to The Enough Project. The M23 rebel group, under the leadership of former co-commander Bosco Ntaganda (who is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court), built alliances with other armed groups to take control of part of the conflict gold trade, using the revenue to finance their military campaigns; 12 tons of gold, worth approximately $500 million, is smuggled out of the country each year to Uganda and Burundi, then sold mainly to the United Arab Emirates, then to international markets. The major official gold exporters in Uganda and Burundi, who indirectly purchase the smuggled gold from M23, does so in violation of the United Nations arms embargo, without exercising due diligence in the origin of that gold.

Lezhnev urges US engagement in the path towards peace, which will address the underlying issues. Lezhnev believes US envoy Russ Feingold should press Congo, Rwanda, and the Great Lakes region to finalize the ICGLR certification for minerals, weeding out conflict gold. The US government and jewelers have the opportunity to make a change, finding solutions, as well as replicating company projects, such as Motorola Solutions Inc's Solutions for Hope.

As Lezhnev observes, there has been "tremendous progress in the leaders of [electronics] companies," but consumers have the greatest impact. What consumers can do is contact the electronics companies, as well as US ambassadors and Congress. Consumers do have resources to ensure their purchases are not financing armed groups that regularly commit atrocities. The Enough Project has ranked the largest electronic companies on their efforts in using conflict-free minerals in their products, the most recent list compiled in 2012: A more comprehensive list was released on "Black Friday" of 2013. The Enough Project is currently surveying top sellers of jewelry, in efforts to compile a list of jewelers and their efforts to use conflict-free gold. The list is scheduled to be release on Valentine's Day of 2014: raisehopeforcongo.

The Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), an advocacy group devoted to raising public awareness of the tremendous need of the region, with hopes of establishing Congolese-led programs to build safe and sustainable communities, approached Joe Whinney, Founder of Theo Chocolate (based in Seattle, Washington), to "spark economic development" in the region. What inspired Whinney to create Theo, the first organic and Fair Trade chocolate factory in the United States (offering products certified organic, Fair Trade, Fair for Life, and non-GMO) was understanding that the only way to impact the world was to control the brand, the message, and the supply chain, emphasizing the importance of promoting Fair Trade practices for the people farming the organic cacao beans, as Theo is "more than chocolate. It's about the land, the people, the dedication and the interconnected relationships that bind us all." He first recognized the injustice and exploitation of local farmers when he sailed to the islands of Belize in his early-twenties, volunteering with a small conservation group, as he soon "fell in love with the land and the people farming there," realizing how "fun and smart" the farmers were, knowing the landscape because they were so in touch with the environment, seeing things that he couldn't. Amidst the enchanting rainforest, Whinney developed a "connection' to [this] magical food."

 Cacao farmer in Congo
Cacao farmer in Congo

A cacao farmer in Congo harvesting cacao.
| Photo: Theo Chocolate | Conflict Minerals, Congo, Cacao Farmer,

What Whinney also saw was the rampant impoverishment, not only within the cacao farmers, but those of different crops in the Tropics. The average cacao farmer earns $1/day, where 80 percent of those farmers and their families are malnourished; it was unfair for the farmers who worked hard every day, harvesting undervalued crops. Creating a premium market for the crop, therefore increasing the value, would increase the farmers' wages, building their economy through their cocoa beans, with one simple concept: "the world wants organic chocolate [where he knew] farmers who would be happy to sell and supply it."

Whinney made his first trip to the DRC in December of 2010, amazed by the incredible resilience of the people, with the mindset that things can improve. The Theo team developed a training program for the Congolese cacao farmers during the Spring of 2011, launching its first ever series of chocolate bars made entirely of Congolese cocoa, where proceeds benefit the ECI, allowing Theo to support cacao farmers in Eastern Congo. The two exclusive chocolate bars are the Congo Pili Pili Chili" chocolate bar, utilizing Eastern Congo's vanilla and Pili Pili spicy pepper, and the ECI Vanilla Nib bar. Whinney is humbled after seeing the vast transformation of the war-torn country, rampant with malnutrition, into one of economic opportunity; farmers can send their children to school; the annual income of cacao farmers has doubled.

Joe Whinney's hope is for awareness; "we cannot ignore millions of people suffering," but we can make a change, by supporting each other in positive change, to "understand, [be] compassionate, and inclusive." We recognize the problems and understand why the solutions should be positive. The key is in recognizing "why community is important and how we are connected to the rest of the world." Whinney remains optimistic, stating that sustainable change will persevere and continue on; "20 years ago, nothing like this existed; imagine what will happen in the next 20 years."

Lezhnev and Whinney are united on the concept that we all have a voice, and we all can make a change. We, as consumers, have the greatest impact to help create hope and opportunity, giving a voice to those who need to be heard.

To learn more, please visit:
enough project, raisehopeforcongo, theochocolate, easterncongo

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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