conflict free

20 Nov

Yesterday I spoke at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference, a one-day event hosted by the Pittsburgh Human Rights Network and the Center for International Legal Education to discuss conflict minerals, consumer activism, and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A decent number of students showed up on a Saturday, indicating they’ve heard that electronics companies are not ethically sourcing their minerals and that our purchases have a sinister connection to what’s happening in the Congo.  That, or the healthy student attendance suggested a significant extra credit incentive.  Either way, I was glad to see them and spend some time discussing this issue, which is a hot topic in the activist world these days.  I thought it might be useful to share my part in the conference here, in the spirit of providing educational resources to those asking themselves “when I buy a phone am I ruining someone’s life in the Congo?”   (NOTE: If you aren’t curious to know the backstory and controversy in the advocacy world about this issue, you can skip a few paragraphs to the “I care. Now what?” section.  If you have an extremely short attention span, then you can skip down to the very end, where I have a “DRC activist checklist.”)

The “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference overview on PHRN’s site explains the connection between the electronics industry selling products here and the situation in Congo in these terms:

This war has lasted over a decade and claimed over five million lives, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. At the heart of the issue are tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, minerals which are mined in eastern Congo and that eventually find their way into our everyday electronics. Profits from the sale of these minerals are used by armed groups to brutally oppress local populations in efforts to maintain control over resources. Conflict minerals connect consumer decisions in developed countries to violence halfway across the world, sparking a growing consumer movement in recent years to demand accountability from electronics companies who trace back their supply chains to mines in eastern Congo.

The consumer movement pushing for “conflict free” mineral certification has grown very popular over the last two years.  Here's a diagram showing why the general public warms to the concept easily:

Owing for a small margin of oddies, your average person both dislikes war and values freedom; they also don't want their everyday purchases to incentivize war.  ENOUGH, a project of the Center For American Progress, has been working hard to raise public consciousness about the conflict in the DRC using a “blood phone” approach akin to the “blood diamonds” awareness campaigns of several years ago, as you can see in this short film: Your Cell Phones Are Funding a Deadly War.  Their efforts allowed Congressman McDermott to add an amendment to the Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010, requiring manufacturers to disclose if they have used any “conflict minerals” from Congo in the making of their products.  The legislation has not been implemented yet, but there have already been indications in the year since it’s passed that the Dodd Frank law has some serious issues.  Among the most troubling is the fact that the law has triggered a defacto embargo on Congolese minerals, forcing the black market further underground, increasing insecurity, and shutting off lines of income for artisanal miners who were already struggling to survive on the meager income these difficult livelihoods provided them.  This, in turn, has caused activists to ask: is certification a good thing or a bad thing for the Congolese?  Is there a tension between what’s good in the short-term vs. the long-term?

Many critics have pointed out that the Dodd-Frank legislation’s impact so far runs counter to the goal of improving conditions for the ordinary Congolese. Though the issue of certifying minerals has been controversial for years and many of the negative results were predicted by Congolese experts (read the Pole Institute’s 2010 report “Blood Minerals”) the recent developments in Congo have brought the “conflict minerals” approach under tremendous public scrutiny, especially since August, when David Aaronsen published his article “How Congress Devastated Congo” in the NY Times.   Mvemba Disolele’s article in the Huffington Post soon followed, leveling similar criticisms.  The ENOUGH Project’s Sasha Lezhnev responded with a defense of their approach, while others, like the scholar Jason Stearns, have expressed cautious optimism.  I have been watching this debate unfold for months.  At Clark University’s Informed Activism: Armed Conflict, Scarce Resources, and Congo in September, and at John Hopkins’ Great Lakes Policy Forum on “How the Story of Congo Gets Told” and the NY Bar Association Debate in October, I’ve seen these arguments burn hot.  The disagreement revolves around whether mineral certification can not only provide consumers with a sense of satisfaction about their purchases but actually contribute to peace and improved conditions in the Congo.

I've been thinking about how to enable people to understand this issue in context, without swamping them in policy detail.  I approached student attendance at the "Conflict Free" conference as a basic unit of expression:

“I care.  Give me some direction, here.”

I have criticisms of the certification approach, but, at the conference, I did not reproduce the policy debate that I provided above for the blog-reader’s benefit.  Instead, I attempted to give the audience tools for critique that are basic to advocacy work, as well as a better sense of the context and history of resource wars and activism for Congo.  Below you can read the presentation I gave to students; hopefully it will contribute to your own lines of thinking as you na through this hairy subject. 

Putting the Free in “Conflict Free”:

Resources wars, activism, & the DRC

Thanks for coming, for giving your time and attention, and for being willing to educate yourselves about the issue of resource exploitation in the Congo.  The DRC needs good allies and I hope today’s events inspire you to explore Congolese realities and perspectives and become involved in advocacy for the DRC; there are a lot of reasons to be concerned and myriad ways to play positive roles and to partner with Congolese working to achieve peace and justice in their country.

Let me introduce myself first, so you know who’s talking to you, why I’m here, and where I’m coming from.  My name is Rebecca Cech.  I work as an instructor in the English Dept. here at Pitt; I have my Master’s degree in literature, so I’m somewhat predictably attached to storytelling.  As you may have guessed from the fact that I’m sitting here, I’m also attached to the well-being of the Congolese.  Part of this comes from my family history in the Congo (see: me sitting on an elephant femur in Virunga Park, DRC, to the left).  In 1917 my great grandfather first traveled to the Belgian Congo as a building missionary; my family was going into its fourth generation in Congo in 1990, when we left under political duress.  I was nearly thirteen at the time.  The accounts I subsequently heard from friends struggling through the violent years that followed, and what I learned during my volunteer work at the HEAL Africa medical facility in 2002 and 2009, motivated me to invest in finding solutions to root causes of the conflict.  These days I combine my commitments to story and to the Congo by authoring a site dedicated to helping readers understand the history, the challenges, and the potential of the country on  On Congo Story I use personal accounts, fables, gossip, art, and a host of other common storytelling forms to share material and present a range of assessments about what’s happening in DRC.  This is not focused on news-style accounts of victimhood and biblical-proportion disaster (you get plenty of that elsewhere) but on a plenitude of literature, cultural artifacts, historical accounts, and personal experience: I write, for instance, about a love affair between volcanoes gone sour, about the fact that grasshoppers are delicious, and how African fabrics are often used as the equivalent of American bumper stickers.  The chance to speak with you today excites me.  As a teacher, whenever I see an eager audience and a problem to be solved, I see opportunity, and Congo is a subject I’m especially passionate about.  I will feel I have succeeded today if you leave with some concrete information, some tools for analysis that transfer easily to other situations, and, ultimately, a curiosity to learn more.
Let’s start with the basic problem the “Conflict Free Pittsburgh” conference aims to address.  I think it’s pretty uncontroversial say in this crowd that, ideally, all products should be conflict free.  It is an ugly thing to know that the capacitors rattling around inside our x-boxes and cell phones and many other everyday items may be connected not only to a person’s mistreatment but to violence and death.  For those of us who value the principle of human welfare above profit, the fact that a label has to be given at all is deeply disturbing and indicates a systemic problem.  When we learn that our purchases may be connected to abuses, we naturally want to find out what’s happening and how to play a responsible role as consumers.  That’s why you’re here.
It’s true that our lifestyles demand raw materials and that this incentivizes exploitation of minerals in Congo; it’s also true that militias in Congo have seized control of areas and used mining as a source of funding.  It also seems reasonable that better corporate regulation is needed.  However, I want to equip you to think critically about certification as a response to this complex dynamic.  I’d like you to consider a comparison that may strike you at first as odd between ethical branding for electronics and eggs.  This helps us think about the ways language works in advertising and to recognize the structural gap between consumer and company interests.  When ethical issues are at the root of a certification push, the word “free” on a label is supposed to signify not only that something negative has stopped but that something positive has happened.  The word is meant to assure consumers that higher ethical standards have been guaranteed while distancing our purchases categorically from mistreatment or cruelty.  For people concerned about the ethical treatment of animals, for instance, the “cage-free” label on an egg carton conjures a vision of chickens free to roam about and cavort in sunny fields with full, rich lives and plenty of bugs to eat, just as many people who are concerned about the warring in Congo see the label “conflict free” and have in their minds the vision of happy Congolese, free to go about their business and live rich, full lives, with plenty of dinner parties.  That’s the fictional magic of branding.  But the truth is that the meaning of the word “free” on these labels is extremely limited: it means, very simply, “without.” “Conflict free” electronics means that the products were sourced without conflict in the same way that “cage free” means that eggs were produced by chickens without confining them to cages.
Why is that important?  Because we have to remember that corporations do not think like people.  They do not have ideal images in their heads of happy chickens or happy Congolese.  They are designed to function on a basis of cost-benefit analysis and there are only two things that can incentivize them to change their practices: the chance for bigger profits or the threat of lost profits.  In the case of “cage free” eggs, the bad press in 2008 about caged conditions led to a niche market that resulted in industry profits.  To use the label the companies had only to do one thing: eliminate cages; these chickens were still de-beaked, conditioned to remain in crowded sheds even when the doors were wide open, periodically starved to generate molting and egg-laying cycles, among other conditions that people concerned about the fundamental welfare of the animals hesitate to call “new-and-improved.”  My point is this: the label on the eggs was not a guarantee that either the objectionable conditions had ceased or that something essentially better had happened.  It meant only that corporations had found a way to profit from a shift in consumer consciousness.  People concerned about the welfare of the animals have a lot more work left to do.  

Corporations can and do regularly co-opt consumer optimism.  They accommodate consumer demands while failing to address or even further aggravating the ethical problem that led to objections in the first place.  Now, let's turn to  Congo’s mineral certification.  What’s happening now with the new “conflict free” push is that electronic companies, legally required to comply with the certification, have simply decided to source elsewhere and abandon Congo entirely.  This is the easiest and most cost-effective way for companies to label their product “conflict free.”  While this effectively breaks the link between the conflict in Congo and the ipod in the Apple store we patronize in the US, it does not automatically translate into solving the conflict in Congo nor does it automatically improve conditions there.  It does not concern itself with the welfare of the Congolese.  It simply means that our products here can be labeled “conflict free.”  In fact, the situation for artisanal miners has grown worse because they now have no one to sell their products to.  No companies want the “bad branding” associated with the Congo conflict.  It’s a good thing for us to become conscious about ethical consumerism. However, it’s a tricky proposition.  If we can’t say that “cage free” on a carton means happier chickens around the corner at so-and-so farm, how can we reasonably expect that “conflict free” on a piece of electronics means happier Congolese halfway across the world?  Regrettaby, we can't.

The only way we will know what's happening on the ground in Congo and whether or not our efforts have positive effects, is if we work very closely with Congolese civil society.  As the 2010 Pole Institute report “Blood Minerals” explains,

Even the modest direct impact of mineral trade reform is unlikely to be achieved if traceability, due diligence and certification schemes are not set up together with the local population and do not win local understanding and backing. The concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few is one of the underlying long term reasons for the persistence of conflict not just in Eastern Congo, but in the DRC as a whole. Most people in Eastern DRC's mining areas are disempowered in every sense of the word, yet in the end it is they who have to be able to implement these schemes in their everyday survival economy. If complicated new rules are only accessible to, and understood and implemented by a small and wealthy elite, this will exacerbate social tension and conflict by conferring international recognition onto this elite to the exclusion of everyone else.

Let me tell you a small history of the Congo’s early state formation that helps support the Pole Institute’s perspective that Congo civil society must be empowered and that helps us figure our own role in the US to help facilitate  positive developments.  The items on the shelves these days may be newfangled but the dynamic--the demand for products in developed countries fueling predatory extraction of raw resources in Congo--stretches back to the country’s date of colonization.  In 1885 the Belgian King Leopold claimed a territory the size of western Europe which he named the “Congo Free State” and he was anxious to profit from the territory's resources.  In the early days of his rule Leopold focused mostly on ivory collection.  The leisure class in Europe was absolutely gaga for billiard balls and piano keys, among other more practical products made of ivory, like false teeth.  Then, in 1887, Dunlop invented the pneumatic rubber tire.  All the well-heeled people were wild for horseless carriages (as early cars were called at the time).  When Ford started making these at factory speed, the demand for tires skyrocketed.  Leopold shrewdly cornered the market because Congo had a vast supply of wild rubber and he knew he could capitalize on this while most industrial competitors had to wait seven years for their rubber plants to mature before harvesting.  The Belgian King made a staggering fortune this way and his enterprise came at the cost of an estimated ten million Congolese deaths; the methods he used to terrorize people into harvesting rubber have been famously documented by literature and reports of the time.

 In 1899 Joseph Conrad published a novel I’m sure you’ve heard of: “Heart of Darkness.”  In this story, based on a diary he wrote while visiting the Congo, he called the trading practices he witnessed “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.”  Others echoed his assessment and began to raise the alarm in the West.  An astute shipping clerk by the name of Edmund Morel, for instance, noticed that the import/export pattern told a troubling tale: whereas ivory and rubber and other valuable items came out of Congo, only guns, ammunition, and chains went in (you might want to compare this to the current small arms trade relative to DRC).  In 1900, a British Consul named Roger Casement wrote to his office saying that “The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain…”; Casement was sent in 1903 by the British Government to investigate Leopold’s abuses and the result of his study, the 1904 Congo Report, led to the establishment of the first international human rights organization in history, the Congo Reform Association (CRA).  Now, CRA members were aware of what products were fueling the atrocities.  They had rubber in their tires like everyone else.  However, they did not approach Ford and demand that he ethically source rubber.  Instead, they advocated for peace and good governance, exposing Leopold's lies and bad practices.  They listened to and published the accounts of the Congolese, and they worked with investigators to verify the information and hold people accountable for abuses of power.  The CRA campaigned for political reforms and helped to create enough public attention and diplomatic pressure that, four years later, 1908, the colony was annexed by Belgium and King Leopold lost personal ownership.  We know that this wasn’t the end of the pattern of resource exploitation in the Congo, but it was certainly a victory for human rights activists of the time.  If they had been able to put the power back into the hands of the Congolese and they had been able to use it for the benefit of the populace, I believe we would be seeing a different story of its development over the last century, in which the Congo would have become one of the richest countries on the globe.

Today’s iphone is yesterday’s car.  Markets and demands can change very quickly.  Consider this: Congo is home to 60% of Africa’s forests.  A few years from now we could be having a similar conversation about efforts to certify “conflict free” wood.  Today I am wearing a pair of earrings made from wood by a Congolese artisan.  What would happen to his job and other artists and others like him (woodcarving is a serious business in the area) if there was a embargo on wood similar to the one on minerals now, as a response designed to limit corporate exploitation of the forests in Congo, which I assure you is well underway.  We need to find a way to help break the cycle that started in 1885 with Leopold’s exploitation, regardless of what the new market and end product may be.  We should train our attention not on the word free as it exist on a label but on the things that help guarantee Congolese freedom--their rights, expression, and representation.  The reality is that the best we can do with a certification approach is to encourage a "Do no harm" policy.  That's worth something for the company, and it may well be the best they can do.  But we are people.  And people would usually prefer go further than "doing no harm" and do some actual good.  The real solution to conflict in the Congo is to reduce Congolese people’s vulnerability to abuses of power, helping them get control of own affairs.  If we can help eliminate the sources of oppression and empower the Congolese, we will have struck at the root of the problems that we came here today to address and invested in making Congo conflict free, not just our electronics.

So, what does this discussion of branding, the early history in the Congo Free State, and the activism of the Congo Reform Association teach us?  How does it help us understand the current situation and how we can best respond to help break Congo’s cycle of exploitation?   What can we do from here in the US and as students?  This event marks an important point in your journey of becoming advocates for the Congolese who want peace and justice in their country, and here are some guiding principles to help you move forward with purpose as you determine what actions you want to take and whose efforts you want to support.

DRC Activist Checklist

  1. Educate yourself before mobilizing for particular policy reforms.  Informed activism is responsible activism; you’re here, so you’re already on the right track.  There are a lot of risk-free ways to contribute until you feel confident about helping push for particular policy changes.  You can host and attend events to learn about the DRC, show movies, have fundraisers to support and connect with young activists in DRC.
  2. Cultivate a healthy suspicion of ethical branding.  Remember that companies don’t share consumer interests.  Just because there’s the word “free” on the label, doesn’t mean that the ethical standards are higher.  The Congo Free State itself is the premium example of how the word “free” can be used as a branding attempt to deflect criticism or close scrutiny, when the conditions on the ground are actually gruesome.  If we are going to apply consumer pressure, we must always focus on the company practices and refuse to be satisfied with the packaging.
  3. Address the source of the problem.  The Congo Reform Association's history shows us that, instead of going to the end of the supply chain (Ford Motor Co., electronic companies), we should look at what happens at the beginning of the supply chain (rubber collectors, mining companies).  One thing you could do as students at Pitt is to find out if the University of Pittsburgh’s pension fund is invested in any of the mining companies identified by the UN report as looting the Congo or the Carter Center Report as engaging in odious contracts, and ask the school to divest.  This would incentivize individual extractive companies to reform their exploitative practices or risk losing support.
  4. Listen to the locals.   The Congo Reform Association started their activism by gathering stories from local Congolese.   Back then, the Kodak was considered a brand new form of eyewitness and people had to physically carry photos around to show an audience what was happening in the Congo.  Now we have access to a lot of information via the web.  We also have a lot of experts here in the US who can speak on the issues and give activists direction and support.  As part of a university, you have a lot of resources to invite local and  national experts, academics, and members of civil society to share their perspectives on the issues.  Involving Congolese voices is a necessary and fulfilling part of finding a lasting solution to DRC’s troubles, and, ultimately, to helping the Congolese live conflict-free.


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