Only transparency can prevent conflict minerals from harming people and wildlife
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The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the heart of central Africa, is a place that is filled with beauty.  

You can see that beauty reflected in the culture of its 70 million citizens, and in the unspoiled landscapes — the tropical jungles and forested highlands — of the national parks across the country.

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There is beauty in the biodiverse wildlife that calls DRC home, including chimpanzees, okapi and the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla. And there is beauty in the precious metals lying just beneath the surface, in the form of minerals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold.

 

Those minerals are a part of DRC’s vast natural resources, which provide wealth to much of the country and contribute significantly to the world economy. These metals are used in the cell phones, computers and other electronics and goods that Americans use every day. Companies from Europe, North America, and Asia are eager to invest in the development of those resources, which are particularly abundant in the east of the country.

Unfortunately, there are armed militia groups present in those same parts of DRC and other countries that exploit these resources to finance their criminal enterprises. These groups are often engaged in a variety of human rights violations, including forced child labor and other atrocities. They flout the rule of law in DRC and endanger the lives of its citizens. Yet the fruits of these illicit mines often make their way into the western supply chains; these are called conflict minerals.

Beyond the human costs, illegal mines are also causing drastic damage to DRC’s wildlife. Wildlife rangers trying to protect these natural resources face extreme danger as armed militias and insurgent groups inside national parks occupy vast swaths of wildlife habitat in order to illegally control and exploit access to minerals. And the wildlife nearby the conflict mineral sites, particularly great apes, are targeted and trafficked for bushmeat to feed the miners.

This is pushing several species to the brink of extinction. A recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and partners found that the Grauer’s gorilla population in eastern DRC had declined by 80 percent over the past 15 years. Evidence showed that the decline was substantially due to the hunting of gorillas for food, especially in areas near illegal mining operations. WCS is currently working on strategies to engage mining communities in DRC, support responsible mining outside protected areas, and promote alternatives to bushmeat hunting for these miners.

On the consumer end, the best way to shut down the flow of minerals coming from illegal mines is to shine the light of transparency. The U.S. Congress, as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, had the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a rule requiring transparency in the supply chain for minerals including tin, tungsten, tantalum (known as the 3Ts) and gold, so that companies and consumers know they are not contributing to illegal activities. And since the rule was issued in 2012, there has been improvement.

The most recent published data collected by the International Peace Information Service indicates that 21 percent of 3T miners worked at sites experiencing interference by armed groups in 2013-15, down from 57 percent in 2009 and 2010 — huge progress for citizens of DRC and wildlife. In addition to promoting transparency at the U.S. consumer end, Dodd-Frank has also catalyzed a number of local initiatives to improve best practices and responsible mining in the country.

However, in a decision last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued statements indicating that it will not enforce key parts of the Conflict Mineral Rule, effectively rolling back requirements that are essential to transparency.  For the people of DRC, American consumers and the endangered wildlife, this is a mistake.

The United States has a vested interest in making sure minerals are mined conflict-free. Unregulated mines run by armed militias undermine stability and governance in DRC and, perversely, make it harder for U.S. businesses to invest, causing harm to American economic and national security.

The Congolese government has spoken out against the potential reversal of this rule as it would jeopardize the country’s security and stability. Cracking down on conflict mines will strengthen the rule of law and help stop violence against millions of people and destruction caused by armed groups.

I urge the U.S. government and the SEC to reject any measure that would weaken the transparency in the mineral supply chain that is currently helping solve the problem. The beauty of this vast country, its national parks and endangered wildlife depend on it.

John F. Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.