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Street Talk: A Conflict Mineral Bill Tries to Walk a Fine Line

Correction Appended

The drumbeats are distant now, but they will grow louder. Soon they will be coming out of your mobile phone, screaming in your ear that by dint of using your cellular device, you are complicit in the murder, torture and rape of millions in the remote eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

[IMGCAP(1)]That’s one point of view in an issue that is just awakening K Street but that has antecedents stretching back two decades, to Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, Nike shoes, Pakistani soccer balls, Uzbek cotton and diamonds from Sierra Leone.

“Blood diamonds,— the worldwide campaign to stop the sale of diamonds that fueled a bloody civil war (and the name of a better-than-average Hollywood film) is about to be replaced by conflict minerals, a two-word phrase every bit as catchy but even more difficult to regulate.

Not to mention legislate — a process that is now going on in earnest at the direction of Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).

“Every one of us is carrying a piece of that conflict in their pocket,— McDermott says, possibly with some exaggeration.

Just as diamond profits benefited warlords who trafficked in child soldiers in Sierra Leone, the sale of three mineral ores mined in the DRC — coltan, wolframite and cassiterite — benefits insurgent fighters in one of the most intransigent, atrocity-laden conflicts in the world and whose roots stretch back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The ores contain, respectively, tantalum, tungsten and tin, all of which are crucial to the electronics industry.

Coltan, in particular, is used in high-end electronics products. It is refined into a heat-resistant powder used in small, high-quality capacitors that in turn control current flow in electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, airbags and hearing aids.

Tungsten is used to make cell phones vibrate; tin is used as solder on electronic circuit boards.

The idea is for the manufacturers, cell phone and computer makers, for example, to make sure that their mineral supplies come from “clean— mines that have no connection to the three powerful rogue groups operating in the area, which borders Rwanda and Burundi close to the geographical center of Africa.

This is not a new concept; the electronics industry in the United States and Europe has a code of conduct and large coalitions that promote a transparent supply chain.

It’s a classic case of industry trying to regulate itself before — God forbid — Congress does. Or even worse, before there is a massive, global grass-roots groundswell that in the public’s mind links cell phones to the murder of innocents in Africa.

“Everyone agrees on the basic problem in the broadest sense that it’s not good that these armed groups are able to finance themselves through the mineral trade,— notes Carina Tertsakian, the London-based Global Witness team leader on the DRC. “The question is what people are doing about it.—

Nongovernmental organizations, such as Global Witness and scores of others around the world, know what they want: an independently verifiable system to prove that no raw material ending up in a finished product came from a DRC mine controlled by a rebel group.

That’s essentially the same message contained in the draft version of the Senate’s bill, although that could change before its planned introduction sometime before the Memorial Day recess.

The Senate “seems to be a little farther ahead than we are. But I’ll be their House sponsor,— says McDermott, who lived in Africa in the 1980s as the State Department’s regional psychiatrist for every country “south of Kinshasa.—

Industry reaction, as best as can be gauged, is: laudable idea, impossible task. “With diamonds, there were four middlemen between the time a stone is taken out of the ground and ends up on somebody’s finger,— one D.C.-based industry lobbyist says. “With these minerals, there are 30 middlemen.—

Finding the source of salmonella-tainted peanut butter, which sickened nearly 700 people in the United States earlier this year, “took a lot of time,— the lobbyist says. “And Congo is not the best of circumstances.—

It’s not clear how apt that analogy is. But Judy Glazer, Hewlett-Packard’s director of Global Social and Environmental Responsibility Operations, puts it another way:

“A computer has several hundred components. You buy a hard disk drive, for example, and there’s a capacitor inside. That capacitor supplier is buying materials from different places. One of the materials they are buying is solder, and tantalum oxide may be used in the capacitor, so you have to go to their supplier, and that supplier might be involved in mining, and there’s a high probability that they’re buying from someone else who might even be buying from a metals exchange, and then there are one or two more steps through brokers before you get to me,— she explains.

“And we only have a contractual relationship with the hard disk supplier,— she adds.

This, the NGOs say, is precisely the point. If corporations put pressure on their first-tier suppliers, like the hard disk maker, Tertsakian says, “then it becomes the responsibility of the first-tier suppliers to put pressure on their suppliers, and so on, down the line.—

Several NGOs have dealt with similar supply-chain issues in trying to force companies to stop buying garments made with cotton from Uzbekistan, which has been accused by human rights groups of forcing children to work in the country’s cotton fields.

“It was, Are you kidding, there’s no way we can get our hands around this,’— says Patricia Jurewicz, the associate director of the corporate social responsibility program of As You Sow. “The hardest nuts to crack were the commodity traders because there was no visibility as to where they got their cotton or under what conditions it was picked.—

Bama Athreya, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, says she personally followed the cotton supply chain. Cotton is sent to mills all over the world, somewhat like the minerals mined in the Congo, which are often smelted in Asia. “The folks at this spinning mill creating this cotton yarn, they can tell you the country of origin because there’s a quality issue. So this can be done. If some of it’s about asking questions, it doesn’t cost too much to ask questions.—

Companies will be doing far more than asking questions, however, under a draft version of the Durbin bill. In fact, companies selling products that include coltan, tungsten and tin will have to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission the minerals’ country of origin — and the particular mine, in the case of minerals from the DRC.

Right now, it’s far from clear how any legislation will shake out, but Senate aides working on the bill are clearly trying to walk a fine line between industry and the NGOs.

And there’s another voice in the conversation as well. The government’s aid agency, the United States Agency for International Development, as well as others in the development world, is skeptical of any legislation that could lead to a cessation of mining activities in the area, something that could occur if the requirements for using DRC minerals become too costly.

“This result would impact the livelihoods of tens of thousands [of] small-scale miners in the DRC and undermine much-needed private-sector investment,— the agency says in its “informal— unclassified response to the Senate bill, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.

“It could exacerbate conflict in the Kivus and other mineral-rich areas by impeding development and potentially creating pools of new recruits to further fuel the illegal armed groups,— the memo continues. “At the same time, it could seriously undermine the Congolese government’s revenue base, which for the province of North Kivu depends greatly on legal customs and export duties on mineral products.—

With recess over, and pressure rising to produce a Senate bill, expect industry groups to weigh in with far more force. And not just the Consumer Electronics Association or the Information Technology Industry Council. The CTIA — the Wireless Association, with its muscular political action committee and large pool of potential advertising dollars, could be drawn into the action if its cell phone carrier members feel their suppliers’ mineral sources would be compromised.

Correction: April 24, 2009

The article reported that Motorola gets nearly half the coltan it uses from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Motorola says that its suppliers certify that none of the tantalum that ends up in its capacitors comes from coltan ore mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo or environmentally sensitive or conflict areas.

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