Sometimes the label of 'conflict minerals' simply shouldn't apply

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The mining and metals sector attracts a great deal of attention from policy makers, think tanks, academics, non-governmental organisations and organisations such as ICMM. So keeping up with the latest publications on the sector is a challenge – but it is also important to remain informed and engaged in important debates.

One of the more recent publications issued by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) – an organisation I have a high regard for – is ‘Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy’. In reading the report I was struck by the importance of language and applying a disciplined approach to the application of terms such as ‘conflict minerals’.

The report seeks to understand how the transition to a low-carbon economy – and the minerals and metals required to make that shift – could affect fragility, conflict and violence dynamics in mineral-rich states. A key conclusion is that there are risks of grievances, tensions and conflicts emerging or continuing around the extraction of the minerals required to make the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Consequently, to meet the UN SDGs and mitigate the impacts of climate change, the supply chains of these strategic minerals must be governed in a way that is responsible, accountable and transparent. So far so good – these are views that I, and most observers of the issues covered in the report, would agree with.

What I take issue with is the incorrect and potentially dangerous application of the label ‘conflict minerals’. The term conflict minerals arose in the 1990’s, initially in the relation to the mining of diamonds in Angola and Sierra Leone by armed groups involved in civil conflict. In Liberia and Cameroon, timber was used to finance conflict and the proceeds of oil production have financed conflict in other countries. This led Global Witness to call for a definition of conflict resources that links the exploitation or trade of natural resources in conflict areas to serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

Conflict minerals in simple terms are those that are mined in conditions of armed conflict, sold or traded by armed groups, and are linked to serious human rights abuses. Other than diamonds, the label of conflict minerals is most closely associated with coltan, tin, tungsten and gold mined artisanally in the Democratic Republic of Congo and nine adjoining countries (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Republic, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Zambia).

In certain circumstances, these four minerals can be mined artisanally, without the need for industrial production or processing facilities (at least close to the point of production).

This brings me back to the Green Conflict Minerals report of the IISD. The report acknowledges the EU’s definition of conflict minerals and also refers to coltan, tin, tungsten and gold. But then swiftly states that 'Conflict minerals are, of course, not the sole source of tension in the sector' and signals that the report will analyse the fragility, conflict and violence implications of both Large Scale Mining (LSM) and Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) operations.

It acknowledges that conflict minerals are more commonly associated with ASM sites, but justifies the broader focus on LSM due to: 'high rates of protests, civil unrest, environmental degradation, corruption and other financial crimes associated with LSM operations'.

The report sets out to identify ‘global hotspots for green conflict minerals’ based on 'the presence of strategic minerals in fragile states (identified by combining the Fragile States Index 2018 and Corruption Perceptions Index 2017), coupled with expected increases in demand for these minerals in the decades to come'. As an exercise designed to draw attention to mineral rich countries where the governance of natural resources is likely to be weak and in need of support and improvement, the exercise has validity. As a basis for understanding the conflict implications of increased demands for green energy minerals in specific countries, its value is questionable at best. 

This is borne out by the choice of case-study minerals and countries (cobalt in the DRC, rare earths in China, nickel in Guatemala, aluminium in Guinea, and lithium in Zimbabwe). The choice of the first three countries make sense in terms of reserves. DRC has the largest reserves of cobalt, at almost three times those of the Australia (which has the second highest). China has the largest reserves of rare earths, twice that of the next nearest country (Brazil). Guinea has an estimated 27 per cent of global bauxite reserves, compared to the next highest (Australia) which has 22 per cent. But Guatemala has only the 10th largest estimated reserves of nickel which is less than 3 per cent of the total reserves of the top 9 countries. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s lithium reserves are estimated to be less than 0.3 per cent of Chile’s which has the largest reserves globally.

The exploration of the conflict implications component of the case studies are patchy at best. The DRC is dispensed with in a page and touches on ASM, child labour, diversification away from the DRC and responsible sourcing. For China, the focus is primarily on local protests linked to pollution, land contamination from a 50-year history of rare earths production, and concerns over China’s dominance in the supply of rare earths. In Guatemala, the report refers to human rights failures on the part of companies during the civil war (which ended in 1996), the troubled history of the Fenix mine and related land conflicts and litigation. In Guinea, the focus is on tensions around bauxite production in the Boké region, linked to allegations of environmental degradation and disappointment with the lack of economic opportunities and social infrastructure.

Despite containing some useful information, the report falls far short of meeting the stated objective of fully understanding the conflict implications associated with an increased demand for minerals required for green energy technologies. Or perhaps more correctly, the conflict implications alluded to in the report have little to do with the minerals required to support the transition to a low carbon economy. Instead, they arise from a combination of weak government oversight and regulation of ASM (and LSM), under-investment by cash-strapped governments in mineral producing regions, and in some instances, poor corporate practices (including by state owned enterprises in the case of China).

The definition of conflict minerals is further expanded in a report recently launched by WWF Germany. The report – mistakenly in my view – calls on the bulk commodities of bauxite and iron ore to be included in the scope of the EU Regulation on Conflict Minerals, legislation designed to curtail opportunities for armed groups and security forces to trade in conflict minerals.

I accept the inevitability that language changes and evolves over time, but conflict minerals has specific connotations that can be highly misleading when used in the way this report applies the term. The label of ‘green conflict minerals’ stretches the ‘elastic limit’ of the meaning of conflict minerals in a way that risks permanently altering and normalising its use in ways that were never intended.