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PERSPECTIVE: Time to shun conflict minerals?

CMJ readers are familiar with the terms “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds”. The proceeds from the sales of such gems is used to prop up rebel forces and dictators abusive of human rights, particularly in Africa....


CMJ readers are familiar with the terms “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds”. The proceeds from the sales of such gems is used to prop up rebel forces and dictators abusive of human rights, particularly in Africa. Canadians can be proud that our country championed the Kimberly Process to exclude such diamonds from world trade.

Now comes the call to declare “conflict minerals” those that are mined in countries where civil wars rages, the environment is despoiled and governments deny their citizens basic rights such as education. The call to exclude such regions from a company’s supply chain is gaining momentum, albeit slowly.

As far as minerals used by electronic manufacturers, the Enough Project (www.Enough.org) is tracking the progress such companies are making to eliminate conflict minerals from their supply chains.

The organization has just released its 2012 report “Taking Conflict Out of Consumer Gadgets” Although the rankings show an overall trend of improvement in the electronic sector, the trend is less than in the jewelry automotive and industrial machinery sectors.

The primary focus of the publication is the Congo. The Enough Project notes: “The report’s objective is to rate consumer electronics companies on their efforts to positively invest in the region [Congo], as well as their efforts to remove conflict minerals—tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold—that fund armed groups in eastern Congo from their supply chains. The minerals are used in electronic devices and are a key driver to the war, which has claimed 5.4 million lives. The rankings are designed to help provide consumers with information to make responsible and informed choices when purchasing electronics products.”

The report praises Intel, HP, Motorola Solutions and Apple for having established practical conflict minerals programs. The chart that accompanies the report lists over 20 more manufacturers and ends with Nintendo getting a zero for no effort.

Should the mining industry throw its considerable support behind the concept of clean minerals? The answer might be : “It depends.”

When the definition of clean minerals includes sound corporate social responsibility measures, the answer is yes. The best mining companies ensure that local communities benefit economically and socially from their operations. Local governments profit by when the gross domestic product grows and they levy taxes and royalties.

If the definition is strictly one of mineral origin, the answer needs a lot more discussion. So many metals are recycled today that their origins cannot be reliably traced. To shun all current mineral production from a region such as eastern Congo, causes only more hardship for the inhabitants.

Take the case of gold. Almost all of the gold ever mined in human history can be accounted for. It is melted down and reused over and over. A few gold molecules in your wedding ring might have been originally mined under an ancient civilization dependent of brutal slave labour.

Copper is another often recycled metal. Part of the soon-to-be-extinct Canadian penny might have come from a dictatorial regime. Perhaps it was first a frying pan, then a wire, then alloyed in aircraft parts, then a compound for marine coatings and finally part of an electronic device.

So let the discussion begin.


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