What are 'Conflict Minerals'?

Monday, February 4, 2019

I loved rock collecting when I was a youngster. I was fascinated by the variety and beauty of the nature around me and took particular pleasure when a weekend trip would include a time to traipse around the countryside to find new samples of rocks and minerals.

A few mineral specimens adorn my desk including a cubic pyrite crystal and a lovely green piece of malachite. I learned that the minerals were specific chemical compounds held in crystal form and that they were found in particular locations around the world in higher concentration than in regular ‘rock’ as an ‘ore body’.

Made sense to me, I could only find pyrite crystals in one spot near where I grew up. I could not find malachite, and small wonder, it turns out that malachite is primarily found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The beauty and the utility of minerals makes them desirable and valuable. When things are available from our environment and they are seen as being valuable, then the simple act of collecting can turn to amassing, hording, and exploiting.

It is small wonder that the development of mineral resources is fraught with questions about social, ethical and environmental behavior. Gold rushes around the world attest to that.

Credit: Dominik Vanyi

How are these minerals extracted?

Minerals are extracted by Large-Scale Mining activities (LSM) involving big equipment, large financial investment, high-efficiency processes and relatively few employees. Minerals are also extracted by Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM), often as a subsistence activity using inefficient techniques and manual labor.

Artisanal and small-scale mining is widespread in developing countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America. The sector represents a basic livelihood and income source for the poverty affected local population.

It helps provide subsistence for millions of families in rural areas of developing countries. About 100 million people — workers and their families — depend on artisanal mining compared to about 7 million people worldwide in industrial mining.

More than 10 million individuals in Africa alone depend on ASM for their livelihood.

Minerals are smelted to release their metals, and those metals, when purified or refined, then become the starting commodities for a myriad of products.

Some metals like iron, aluminium, copper, titanium, and zinc are relatively common or easier to come by than others like the ‘precious metals’ gold, silver, platinum and palladium. The relative scarcity of gold and silver and have led them to be used as stores of value and currency over centuries.

A rapidly increasing demand for electronic goods in the past decade has led to a significant increase in demand for certain metals.  Particularly tantalum, tin, and tungsten, which, along with gold, are often referred to as 3TG and make up the initial group of “conflict minerals”.

Why “conflict” minerals, you ask?

Years of civil war in Angola had been addressed by a cease-fire and a peace agreement in 1991, followed by an election in 1992. Guerilla conflict continued in Angola despite UN Security Council Resolutions imposing sanctions on the rebel group UNITA.

In 1998, UN Security Council Resolution 1173 condemned UNITA for failing to implement previous peace agreements and UN Resolutions, and directed member states to prohibit the import of diamonds not controlled through a certificate of origin scheme or the Angolan government.

In early 2000, a UN-commissioned report confirmed that the guerilla group was managing to evade the sanctions and continue their conflict with the government through the selling of diamonds (later to be known as “blood diamonds”). The UN Security Council then unanimously adopted Resolution 1295, directing diamond trading countries to impose severe penalties for possession of diamonds in violation of Resolution 1173.

The term “conflict” minerals thus initially referred to the sale of minerals by a group not representing the legitimate government of the country. This use of “conflict” has been modified slightly with the advent of new European Union regulations which state that;

“Conflict-affected and high-risk areas are identified by the presence of armed conflict, widespread violence or other risks of harm to people. Armed conflict may take a variety of forms, such as a conflict of international or non-international character, which may involve two or more states, or may consist of wars of liberation, or insurgencies, civil wars…High-risk areas may include areas of political instability or repression, institutional weakness, insecurity, collapse of civil infrastructure and widespread violence. Such areas are often characterised by widespread human rights abuses and violations of national or international law.”

Remember in an earlier blog we mentioned that governments were implementing regulations about due diligence? We now see that the participants in the supply chain for minerals need to know whether the source of the minerals is a place of “risk of harm to people”.

Looking back, as a youngster I was really fortunate to have been able to rockhound without ‘risk of harm’.

We will look in more detail at risk of harm in the next blog.

- ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lee Williams

Lee is a contributing researcher to Minespider. A Canadian living in France, he is an occupational physician experienced in injury prevention, chemical risk management, and international chemical regulation. Lee's career has extended from private medical practice to associate medical director for Michelin, and from President of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Association of Nova Scotia, to chair of the Cobalt REACH Consortium technical committee. He is passionate about product stewardship.

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