In Which I Turn My Back on Conflict Mineral Activism

While I have always been scholarly-minded, I have some roots in activism as well. I have spent the better part of five years supporting Invisible Children and Resolve and in my last years of my undergrad I branched out to other causes as well. Activism is the bridge which took me from teaching secondary education to teaching post-secondary, it’s what really sparked my interest in studying conflict. And since I’ve begun studying conflict, it’s been difficult to come to terms with the damage that some activism does.

One particular case is the idea of conflict minerals. Recently, you can’t go anywhere without hearing that your cell phone or laptop is probably causing women in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be raped. If you haven’t, see the plethora of news articles linked in this Wronging Rights post. Conflict minerals are akin to blood diamonds – items of value that provide funding for armed groups to exact all sorts of violence on innocent people. You buy electronics, and they contain tantalum, tungsten, and other assorted minerals that are found in the DRC. Rebel groups run some of the mines in eastern DRC, and they profit from your addiction to technology.

There are guns in our cell phones! War in our electronics!

But the activism that has been riled up by the likes of me (having presented a “history of the LRA” talk alongside my colleague’s “conflict minerals” presentation, and brought Falling Whistles to my campus) has led the Frank-Dodd bill which passed last year to include SEC provisions that companies must prove their minerals from central Africa are conflict-free. This, of course, is impossible with the lack of infrastructure there, and as a result mining has ceased in many regions – with the central government banning exports from the Walikali region altogether.

The problem is, the violent groups are finding other ways to get their money, and they continue to raid villages and rape civilians. Meanwhile, many artisanal miners are left without any income, and they have no way to provide for their families now that their job has been rendered unprofitable or straight up illegal. As Laura at Texas in Africa wrote recently:

This was a completely predicable result and one that speaks to the irresponsibility of advocates who identified a solution without first really understanding the problems the region faces. The only question in my mind is why smart lawmakers like Representative Jim McDermott and reputable companies like HP continue to take advice from advocates who have very limited experience in the eastern Congo, don’t speak French, and push policies that reflect a poor understanding the dynamics of conflict in the region. By pursuing policies that leave formerly employed miners out of work, they have actually made life worse for Congolese who live in the mining regions while doing almost nothing to substantially help to improve the situation. And it is not at all clear what anyone is doing or will do to help them pick up the pieces.

A little less than a year ago, my environmental conflict professor (a genius, by the way) was the first person to really challenge the conflict mineral narrative in my world. She also directed me to Laura (which I didn’t realize until yesterday, coincidentally) and pushed me to really think hard when writing my paper on coltan in the DRC. Since then, I’ve been going back and forth as to whether or not conflict minerals are anything like blood diamonds, and even questioning how well the whole blood diamond thing worked out. Needless to say, I’ve begun to turn my back on some of the work I’ve done in the past.

I’m not ready to abandon all activism, though. Falling Whistles is doing good work with rehabilitation centers in the DRC, but in the U.S. their vehicle of awareness is 100% conflict minerals. The Enough Project has been teetering for me, with John Prendergast going from what was once an expert in my mind to just another advocate of iffy ideas. I’m quickly drifting away from conflict minerals activism, and we’ll see if I make a similar drift in other realms of my previous advocacy too.

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