How Conflict Minerals Work

A gold merchant in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many mines are under the control of violent militias, rebels and other armed groups.
A gold merchant in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many mines are under the control of violent militias, rebels and other armed groups.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's not unusual to see early adopters line up for hours to get their hands on the latest technological gizmo. Our love of electronics sometimes borders on obsession. We have them in our cars, our homes, our schools and our offices. We use electronics to communicate, to work and to have fun. The shift to mobile devices has spawned even more consumerism. Households that may now have a mobile device for each member of the family.

Though electronic components rely on a variety of minerals to operate, in this article we'll look at four in particular: gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten. Engineers use thin strands of gold to bond to wires -- these strands are highly conductive and resist corrosion. Tin is a soldering agent. Tantalum is a component in capacitors, which you'll find in many electronics. And tungsten is a strong metal with a very high melting point -- it's useful for applications that generate a lot of heat, like light bulbs or electronic tubes.

We have to mine gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten ore, which we then have to process in refining and smelting operations. This ore comes from various mines around the world but one country has been in the news more than any other: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And here's where the dark side of our electronics obsession comes into play.

Over the last several years, the DRC has experienced massive political turmoil. Some of that comes from political issues within the country's government. But the DRC's neighbors, particularly Uganda and Rwanda on the DRC's eastern border, have also contributed to the instability in the DRC.

The mines in the DRC provide a source for revenue. In the eastern part of the DRC, these mines are contested, strategic resources for several armed groups, including Congolese and Rwandan troops. Several parts of the eastern DRC are essentially lawless and these armed groups use murder and rape to intimidate the native populations into mining resources. The military may tax the mines or even smuggle the ore out of the country to sell to smelting companies. Military groups then use the money to purchase weapons and otherwise fund their efforts.

The scenario is a bleak one and has prompted countries around the world to devise ways to end the cycle of violence and smuggling within the DRC. But to really understand conflict minerals, we have to look beyond the eastern DRC.

A History of Violence

Mobutu Sese Seko held power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades using violence, threats and corruption to maintain control.
Mobutu Sese Seko held power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades using violence, threats and corruption to maintain control.
Keystone/Getty Images

In 1885, the Belgian king Leopold II took possession of a large portion of central Africa that we now call the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the early 20th century, the Belgian government controlled the colony and named it the Belgian Congo. The native population of the Belgian Congo resisted the foreign government and in 1960, Belgium granted the colony its independence.

The new country was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country elected a new government headed by a president and prime minister. But within a year of independence, the prime minister died -- possibly an assassination -- and the army revolted against the government. An army officer named Mobutu seized control but later ceded power back to the president.

In 1965, Mobutu again seized control of the government and declared himself president. He maintained control for decades. While the country held periodic elections, they were a sham. Mobutu was effectively a dictator who renamed the country Zaire.

By the late 1980s, Mobutu faced pressure both from within Zaire and from other nations to hold legitimate elections. A second government arose in Zaire, ultimately merging with Mobutu's government. Mobutu continued to delay a legitimate vote into the 1990s.

Meanwhile, in 1994 a violent conflict broke out in neighboring Rwanda. This conflict was between two ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The two groups had been at odds for decades. The conflict became one of the most violent in the late 20th century. After the Rwandan president, a Hutu, died when his plane was shot down, Hutus turned on Tutsis. In three months, nearly 800,000 Rwandans died -- most of them Tutsis as a result of Hutus committing genocide.

But in the end, Tutsis gained control of the Rwandan government. Thousands of Hutus from Rwanda, many of whom took part in the genocide, fled to Zaire. The presence of Rwanda militia in eastern Zaire further destabilized the country.

In 1996, a man named Laurent-Desire Kabila organized a rebellion against Mobutu. Kabila received support from Uganda and Rwanda in his bid to oust Mobutu. In 1997, Mobutu left Zaire. Kabila named himself president and the country again assumed the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila's military consisted of Congolese and Rwandan troops and was known as the Forces Armées Congolese (FAC).

In 1998, Rwandan troops inside the DRC rebelled against Kabila. Kabila's former allies Rwanda and Uganda sent forces into the DRC to overthrow him. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops in support of Kabila. Rwandan forces pulled back to the eastern part of the DRC. Meanwhile, Ugandan troops occupied and controlled the northern part of the DRC.

These forces -- Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan -- would play a large role in the lives of DRC's citizens in the years to come.

Armies, Militias and Rebels

Rangers from the Congolese Wildlife Authority return to Rumangabo in North Kivu in 2008, an area that was under the control of the Tutsi rebel group CNDP.
Rangers from the Congolese Wildlife Authority return to Rumangabo in North Kivu in 2008, an area that was under the control of the Tutsi rebel group CNDP.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

In 2001, Kabila was the victim of an assassination. His son, Joseph Kabila, became president. The younger Kabila sought to end unrest in the DRC. He welcomed soldiers from the United Nations into the DRC to help quell the violence. Over the next few years, the DRC's neighboring nations withdrew their troops officially. Some troops remained behind, forming splinter groups within the DRC.

Even as the DRC created a stable government, complete with truly free elections, these splinter groups began to terrorize the eastern DRC. Among the active groups were the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu rebel group and a militia dominated by Tutsis called the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Clashes between the two groups and the DRC's official military created a chaotic environment.

Over time, the DRC government managed to expel or absorb many of the rebel groups. Several have transformed into political parties within the DRC. But smaller militias still fight for control of the eastern regions of the DRC, particularly in North and South Kivu, provinces that border Lake Kivu. The eastern region is now the domain of various Mai-Mai, which are community-based militias. While a few politically motivated armed groups are still active in the area, much of the current violence takes place between bands of fighters who have no distinct political aim.

To fund their efforts and to purchase weapons, the armed groups rely heavily on exploiting the natural resources of the DRC. Their main focus is the DRC's mining industry. These groups use force in the form of rape and other violent acts to suppress the local populations and force them into labor in the mines. Meanwhile, they fight one another -- and the DRC military -- for control of territory and smuggling routes.

Smuggling Minerals and the World's Response

Armed groups smuggle materials like gold and unprocessed minerals out of the DRC.
Armed groups smuggle materials like gold and unprocessed minerals out of the DRC.

As the mines produce ore, the militias, rebels and other armed forces in the area must smuggle it out of the country. Some pass through Rwanda or Uganda en route to Africa's eastern coast. The groups sell ore to refineries. The refineries then sell refined metals to smelting corporations, most of which are in Asia. Out of all the metals mined in the DRC, gold is the most valuable.

The militias use the money from selling ore to purchase weapons and other supplies. The more politically motivated groups may use the money to influence DRC officials. Corruption in the DRC is rampant -- visitors to the country often must pay arbitrary fees and bribes to avoid harassment.

Most of the money from the mining operations goes to the armed groups in control of the region. Very little makes its way back to the actual people mining the ore. In effect, these groups are employing slave labor.

Meanwhile, the smelting companies refine the ore into the metals we use in electronics. The smelting companies sell the metals to component manufacturers. These companies then sell components to big companies like microchip processors and electronics companies. Ultimately, many of these products end up in the hands of consumers around the world, who are unaware of the conflict behind the source of the minerals needed to produce them.

Organizations like Global Witness and the Enough Project have worked hard to bring the plight of the DRC people to the world's attention. Through their efforts, they have shaped public policy. In the United States, one such policy is an addendum to the bill called the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Section 1502 of the bill deals with conflict minerals.

This section holds companies responsible for keeping track of the supply chains for the metals they use in their products. Should the company's products use any conflict minerals from the DRC or its neighboring countries, the company must disclose that fact. If a company can demonstrate its supplies don't directly or indirectly fund armed groups in the DRC, it may label its products as "DRC conflict free."

Congress passed the bill into law in 2010. But the U.S. government delayed the implementation of the conflict mineral clause until late 2011. Some companies, such as Intel and Apple, have already stopped purchasing ore from the DRC.

Organizations like the Enough Project hope that by pressuring companies to avoid conflict minerals, the funding for the various militia groups in the DRC will dry up and the violence in the region will decrease. But how likely is this scenario?

Can We Stop the Violence?

The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has drawn the attention of celebrities, world leaders, corporations and average citizens. Here, Ben Affleck listens to Senator John Kerry talk about the U.S. policy dealing with the DRC.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has drawn the attention of celebrities, world leaders, corporations and average citizens. Here, Ben Affleck listens to Senator John Kerry talk about the U.S. policy dealing with the DRC.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

If the conflict in the DRC were all about money, it might be possible to end violence by cutting off the flow of wealth into the nation. But the situation is far more complex. There are ethnic groups in the DRC that have deep cultural and political motivations for enacting violence against each other. The unstable nature of the region means that there's a constant struggle for power. Cutting off funding might hinder the armed groups in the DRC, but it doesn't necessarily address the underlying factors that fuel violence.

In fact, the looming disclosure rules dictated by the Dodd-Frank act may be hurting innocent people in the DRC. Auditing the supply chain isn't easy. Corruption in the DRC makes evaluation difficult and there hasn't been much time to set up and execute a strong auditing program. The Enough Project estimates that as much as 60 percent of the minerals coming out of the DRC are from illegal operations [source: Burns].

Legitimate DRC mining companies are suffering. Kabila suspended all mining operations within the DRC for about six months, arguably as a response to the Dodd-Frank act [source: Seay]. Thousands of people in the DRC had no means of support during the suspension. The move further destabilized the nation and thrust many into abject poverty. According to some reports, Kabila's response led to the militarization of previously legitimate mines, meaning the act may have contributed to the very thing it was trying to combat [source: Braeckman].

The prospects for a workable ban on conflict minerals are grim. As corruption flourishes in the DRC, it may become difficult or even impossible to verify that any particular shipment of ore came from a legitimate mine. That could either lead to continued funding for armed groups or an outright ban on minerals from the DRC. Neither of those outcomes are good news to the Congolese people.

According to the International Crisis Group, concerned consumers should focus on restructuring the governance of the DRC. Cutting off funding to armed groups isn't enough -- it's difficult to implement and it doesn't address the underlying issues that led to the violence in the first place. Focusing on the root causes of the conflict is the only way people can hope to end the systemic violence in the DRC.

Even if the move to avoid the purchase of conflict minerals doesn't directly solve the problems in the DRC, it helps bring attention to a part of the world that sorely needs it. Perhaps increased awareness will lead to significant changes and an end to an era of violence.

To learn more about conflict minerals and related topics, visit the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


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