Mineral mines that bring misery

POST BY JHellings

Patrice has worked as a child miner since he was eight
Patrice has worked as a child miner since he was eight

In 2008, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (GC 35) recognised the fundamental relationship between people and creation and called for a deepening of this relationship, saying: “Care of the environment affects the quality of our relationship with God, with other human beings and with creation itself” (Decree 3: 32). This commitment to the environment led to the Jesuits establishing the Governance of Natural and Mineral Resources (GNMR) Network, which supports and advocates on behalf of local communities affected by mining activities. It also lobbies on human rights issues with a view to reducing the harm inflicted on land and communities around the world through mining activity.

Advocacy Consultant George Gelber represents Jesuit Missions on the GNMR. He believes the Jesuits’ involvement in some of the poorest regions of the world places them in a strong position to challenge mining companies over their ethical policies. “The rapid economic growth of the past two decades has driven up the price of metals,” he says. “Mining companies are exploring further and further afield, pushing into ever more challenging and environmentally sensitive areas.  No country is off limits, no region too hot or too cold.  Many of the most valuable and precious metals are found in poor countries, particularly in Africa, where instead of bringing prosperity and development, they have brought misery and death.  Economists talk about ‘resource curse’ to describe the impact of mineral wealth on countries where, far from a blessing, it fuels conflict and corruption.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one example of a country that has been fought over by warring factions for years. Six years ago it was estimated that the control that armed groups had over mining in eastern DRC was earning about US$185 million a year; one AK47 cost about US$30. When militia groups get their hands on precious metals, they can buy the weapons and ammunition they need to go on fighting for years.  That is why they are called conflict minerals. 

Legislation

“The armed groups do not mine the minerals themselves but force local miners to hand them over for a fraction of the price that they fetch in the international market,” George explains.  “Once sold on through traders and intermediaries, refined and ready for use, they end up in factories in Asia which produce must-have smart phones.  Our mobile phones alone contain tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold.  And while we are used to questioning where our foods come from and whether they are responsibly sourced, few people stop to think about where these metals come from.” 

Child labour and other forms of abuse are rife in the mines. Ben (15) told researchers that he had worked in a mine since he was 10 and narrowly avoided a mine shaft collapse last year, a common occurrence.  Jacques used to be a militia commander in eastern DRC with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). “When the FDLR come to a mine, the first thing they do is get the girls and abuse them,” he explained. “Then they force many people to work and kill those who don’t want to work.”

The United States Congress has passed a law which obliges companies using minerals sourced from DRC or any of its nine neighbouring countries, to certify that they are not causing conflict. And GNMR, of which Jesuit Missions is a member, is working to strengthen European legislation, recognising that voluntary regulation in the EU would fail to make a serious demand for conflict-free minerals. George Gelber also believes that consumers can exert direct influence on mining companies and the IT corporations they supply. 

“Last May, Apple published its first conflict minerals report, which gave a detailed account of where it obtains key materials that end up in its products,” he says.  “It showed that four of the 21 smelters it used in DRC or adjoining countries had not been certified as conflict-free.  Some people are already asking stores whether the mobile phones or gold jewellery they are selling are conflict-free. Staff across the counters might not know what customers are talking about, but they can be asked to report your questions to senior managers. As more and more questions come in, they may become more aware of the issue and will see the need to take action.”