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The next frontier of conflict minerals: South America

By Benjamin Musampa      

Given its past leadership limiting blood diamonds, Canada can help now in its own backyard.

Former NDP MP Paul Dewar introduced a bill, defeated at second reading in the last Parliament, to put tighter controls on conflict minerals from the Great Lakes region in Africa used to produce smartphones and laptops. Trade in conflict minerals appears to have now emerged in Venezuela. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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In the last decade, columbite-tantalite (coltan) has been a source of global controversy as a strategic resource illegally exported from conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo to neighbouring countries, relabelled, and sold to major high-tech manufacturers around the world. A similar trend is now happening with Venezuela’s coltan, reportedly smuggled to Brazil, the second-largest exporter of this mineral in the world.

A déjà vu

In 2009 the Venezuelan government under then-president Hugo Chávez attempted, unsuccessfully, to address the issue of illegal coltan trade across its border. A few years later, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists discovered a prosperous illegal coltan trade and increased security risk for artisanal miners. This practice is harmful to children, women, and vulnerable indigenous populations working in precarious conditions confronted with drug smugglers and armed factions also chasing ore.

Aaron Hall, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project, pointed out that “Venezuela could emerge as a big problem since it represents another source of conflict coltan, coming from an area where there is no regulation, no transparency, and no security for the people working in the mines.”

The recently elected Liberal government in Canada could take advantage of this regulatory vacuum, as it did more than a decade ago through multilateral leadership limiting blood diamonds, leading to the creation of the Kimberley Process. As a major international player in the extractive sector, Canada would benefit from making multi-stakeholder initiatives work while regaining its leadership in the global governance spectrum, given that the spectre of conflict minerals is affecting South America, a region close to home and with which Canada has longstanding partnerships.

In search of answers

Regulating conflict minerals, referred to as 3TG minerals (tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold), has not been easy; plenty of effort remains. The importance of these minerals for manufacturing consumer electronics, such as laptops and smartphones, fostered a convergence of interests among international organizations, including the UN Security Council, countries like the United States, and also industrial players. Such synergies meant to regulate the source of conflict minerals paved the way for regulatory frameworks such as the OECD Due Diligence Guidance (2011) and the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act (2010).

These initiatives are well intended but face important challenges. Just Castillo Iglesias, a lecturer at the Ocean University of China, has raised four major questions. First, how can these initiatives ensure that the local communities in the affected areas can actually benefit from regulation of conflict minerals? Second, how can existing and future initiatives adapt to the reality faced on the ground, where mining and trade escape governmental control due to the difficulty of enforcing regulation in a conflict-ridden environment? Third, how can it be ensured that the negative consequences or side effects of these initiatives are minimal? Fourth, are these international efforts adequately addressing the root causes of the conflict-mineral problem?

In September 2014, an open letter published by 70 Congolese and international experts and observers reiterated the importance of addressing the root causes of conflict minerals when adopting policy options. Otherwise, they may harm the economic conditions of people earning income from artisanal mining in conflict regions.

A role for Canada?

Ian Smillie, a former UN Security Council investigator and prominent figure in the campaign against blood diamonds, believes Canada’s quest for leadership in global development should not rest on promoting the narrow commercial interests of Canadian mining companies. Instead, a new Liberal government should try to address development issues like the challenges faced by artisanal miners.

Considering artisanal and small-scale mining are often linked to conflict financing, Canadian policy-makers may embrace the African Mining Vision by adopting policies intended to harness the potential of artisanal and small-scale mining to improve rural livelihoods, to stimulate entrepreneurship in a socially-responsible manner, and to promote local and integrated national development as well as regional co-operation.

Benjamin Musampa is a research associate at l’Observatoire des Amériques affiliated with the Centre d’études sur l’intégration et la mondialisation in Montreal, and Thinking Africa of the Institut de recherche et d’enseignement sur la paix en Afrique based in Dakar, Senegal.

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