Beyond Conflict: tackling green abuses in the mineral supply chain

I was at a meeting in the Swedish parliament at which Joakim Wohlfeil from Swedish-based international development group Diakonia described how he had met a mine worker called Jean-Pierre in the Haut Ulele province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (pictured) who was handling mercury in his hands with no protection.

Credit: Joakim Wohlfeil/Diakonia

Joakim asked him if he knew how dangerous it was to which the miner responded “Yes, I know how dangerous this is and that I am probably going to die from it, but this is the only means for me to earn income for my family”. Mercury pollution at mines in conflict-affected and high risk areas (CAHRAs) is an example of environmental abuse in minerals supply chains.

It is an area where the UK is leading global efforts and where collaborative partnerships and the use of technology can play a key role in effectuating change.

The UK as a leading global actor - the UK has had a long history of engagement to address conflict, environmental and social abuses in minerals supply chains, from the Kimberley process to stop so-called “blood diamonds” from countries like Sierra Leone to the sustainable sourcing timber products and most recently on responsible sourcing of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold (3TG) from CAHRAs. The UK was one of the driving forces behind a new EU law that will set a de facto global standard under the framework of the OECD due diligence guidance on responsible minerals supply chains.

Tech sector leadership - While the EU law is new, global efforts in fact got underway more than a decade ago after it was shown that money being paid to source tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo for use in headsets and elsewhere across the tech sector was not supporting local mining communities but funding armed conflict, hence the expression “conflict minerals”.

The tech sector spearheaded what became multi-sector initiatives to clean up the supply chain such as the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI). We talk now about “responsible minerals” as opposed to conflict minerals because we don’t want to address just conflict (which remains serious) but also environmental abuses as well as social abuses like child and forced labour.

Collaborative partnerships key to driving change – despite the leadership from the tech sector no one interest can solve these  issues alone. A new not-for-profit public private partnership called the European Partnership for Responsible Minerals (EPRM) brings together government, industry and civil society to increase the demand for and supply of responsibly-sourced minerals from CAHRAs.  It was designed to help make the new EU legislation effective on the ground by improving the social and economy conditions for mine workers and local communities in CAHRAs and to increase the number of mines adopting responsible business practices. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was one of the founding strategic partners and remains a key sponsor of the EPRM, which is also supported by the Department of International Development (DFID). Tech companies that are members include Intel, Philips, HP, NXP, Apple and Samsung but increasingly companies from other sectors are joining too. Other significant actors involved include the European Commission, which is funding the partnership, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and OECD.

Deploying tech to address supply chain challenges - several projects focusing on environmental abuses have already been funded. RMI is managing a project of the Tin Working Group (TWG) in Indonesia. The project deals with sustainable land reclamation for former artisanal and small-scale mine sites and research on the environmental and social impact of offshore tin mining. The Responsible Kenyan Gold project is led by Fairtrade and works directly with small-scale mines Kakamega and Migori counties to have safer conditions for miners and has a target of reducing the use of mercury by more than 70%. What is clear is that there is a significant role in using technology in solving these problems. Use of technology such as establishing  knowledge platforms to help SMEs establish and maintaining minerals supply chain due diligence systems alongside webinars to educate suppliers and the use of artificial intelligence and blockchain to improve efficiency, enhance transparency and environmental governance can help to make supply chains more sustainable. But a lot of work to develop and trial solutions remain.

Governments, upstream and downstream sectors (in particular non-tech 3TG sectors like automotive, aerospace, medical, construction), civil society and other stakeholders are encouraged to join the European Partnership for Responsible Minerals to help us find those solutions. I am convinced that the EU legislation and EPRM will act as a global reference point for developing a common global approach to compliance, communication on due diligence practices and best practice.

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