Recently I had the privilege to speak with Holly Dranginis, a Policy Associate for the Enough Project, in her Washington, D.C. office. Holly is a leader in an innovative campaign to stop a deadly civil war in eastern Congo by cutting off the gold and mineral profits that Congolese warlords depend on. In the process, she is helping to change the jewelry industry. We spoke about Congo, prosecuting Charles Taylor, and much more. The following is an edited transcript:
Q: OK, so what is the Enough Project? Who are you guys?
A: We are a non-governmental organization based here in Washington, D.C. We do policy and advocacy work around ending genocide and atrocities in the central African region. We focus geographically on three big areas: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
Our main focus is to combat the economic drivers of armed violence as a way to try to end and prevent atrocities in this region. Many of the violations and abuses that are going on in the countries that I just named are happening in part because armed actors are getting funding from illicit trafficking of minerals. That includes gold in Congo and diamonds in the Central African Republic.
Q: I took a look at your bio. I see that you’ve worked in Guatemala and Uganda, that you’ve got a law degree, and that you helped with the Charles Taylor case in The Hague. It’s a very impressive background. I’m wondering: what attracted you to the Enough Project? What gets you excited about the work you do?
A: Well, the Enough Project really stood out for me as an organization. Some say we punch above our weight. I think that’s really true. Enough aims to influence high-level decision makers in the US government and in the region with high quality field research and policy analysis despite a small staff. I wanted to be part of that kind of ambitious team where the work is driven by folks striving for relevance and impact. That is something that I really wanted out of a job and career.
I also didn’t want to be sitting in Washington but have no lifeline to the ground. At Enough, we really try to have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on every day. Congo is a place where the armed violence is still very active, where people have been brutalized for decades, but where there’s enormous hope and concrete levers that we can use with companies, with governments, to make things change. And that’s kind of a crazy contrast to deal with on the everyday level, but incredibly powerful and motivating.
Q: Before we get to Congo, I’d like to ask: what was it like to work on the Charles Taylor case? Taylor, as you know, is the former Liberian president and blood diamond warlord who in 2012 was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A: One of my favorite things about working on war crimes cases is how tangible the issues are. Trials are a way of really delivering justice for unspeakable crimes and bringing some measure of support to victims. It’s compelling work because you really get into the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, details about what was going on as crimes were being committed, how everyday civilian life was affected, and what the power dynamics were like. And I was working on a diverse team of lawyers and investigators from all different countries, many from Sierra Leone where the violence happened .
Perpetrators of war crimes are very often motivated and funded by natural resources like diamonds and minerals. But the Taylor case was one of the first times we’ve seen an international criminal case really address head on the exploitation of natural resources and the link to atrocities like sexual violence and murder. My hope is that the case creates a precedent for accountability in other places such as Congo and the Central African Republic, where natural resource exploitation and atrocities are tightly linked.
Q: Let’s go to Congo. The civil war there is the deadliest war since World War II. It’s led to the death of more than 5.4 million people. What has been your progress in stopping conflict minerals from eastern Congo—gold as well as tin, tantalum, and tungsten—from funding warlords and driving the conflict?
A: Well one real benchmark of progress was the legislation, the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Congress passed it in 2010. There’s a small section in it that requires companies to find out where their minerals are coming from, whether they are linked to armed conflict in central Africa, and report publicly on that. That sounds simple but it’s a massive shift for every industry that uses four of the minerals we find in our everyday products: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. That includes not just electronics, not just jewelry. That’s tools, household appliances, the auto industry, aerospace. All of these companies are now starting to really dig into their supply chains, engage with their suppliers, and examine their sourcing practices.
Some companies say that the passage of the law was like a “day of infamy” for them. But what we’ve also seen is that once companies start to get into it they find it’s cheaper to do this investigating and these reforms than they originally thought. Some actually find it fascinating to start learning about what’s going on in Congo, learning about their supply chains. We heard from a company yesterday—I think it was Ford—that said they had to go 12 different rungs down the ladder to actually get to the original source.
Q: And what kinds of effects are you seeing as a result of the law?
A: It depends on which sector we’re talking about, and which minerals. There is significant progress by the electronics industry to combat the trade of conflict tin, tantalum, and tungsten. Intel and Motorola Solutions along with others began their work on this issue five, six, seven years ago. We now have a fully conflict free product with minerals from Congo on the market. That’s Intel’s microprocessor. And there’s been an effect on the ground. Many armed groups are earning significantly less money from the trade of these minerals.
The area we need to see more progress on is gold. There hasn’t been as much downstream retail movement on jewelry and other products made with gold. Not nearly as much as we’ve seen in the electronics industry. So the next big frontier is getting jewelry companies to get on board. To feel that responsible sourcing is possible. To invest in clean mines in the region. And then we can start to cut off the source of financing that comes from gold and goes straight to these armed groups.
Q: Have you been to Congo?
A: Yes, I have.
Q: And what did you think? What surprised you about it?
A: I was there for a month, just this past May. Mostly in the east. And two things surprised me. One, I was expecting this a little bit because I lived previously in Uganda, but it went beyond my expectations—this is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Everywhere you look is like a postcard. Or more like a dream. It is stunningly beautiful. Volcanoes. Lush, green rainforest. Incredible sunsets. Big, big sky. And very little congestion and pollution.
But then the other thing that surprised me was just how sinister it felt there. Congo felt to me more scarred than any place I’d ever been. And maybe that should have been obvious. This is the deadliest war since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in eastern Congo. But you could feel it in the air. And you could see it on people’s faces. I want to add that there was also incredible joy, a growing artist culture, and strong pockets of civil society activism. But it’s a place of stark, powerful contrasts.
Q: Is there someone you talked to there—a particular face or person—whose story stands out that you remember?
A: I interviewed a woman who was a prosecutor for a prominent sexual violence case that recently took place in eastern Congo. She was supporting victims in a trial charging army officers for crimes committed during a single attack on a village in South Kivu. And she stands out to me. She was doing everything she could, not only to get the perpetrators prosecuted but also to serve, support, and empower the victims.
In peace building, victims often aren’t nearly as involved as they should be. There is not nearly enough attention to their stories and input straight from the source. This lawyer was making an enormous personal effort to change that. She brought a higher level of attention to the voices of these women than would have occurred otherwise, in the face of significant personal risk and sacrifice. Her job was difficult. When I was with her, she was being pulled in a thousand different directions and she really was keeping her cool. And that just gave me a lot of hope for the future of this country.
Q: Let’s now go to a lighter topic: jewelry. What kind of jewelry do you like?
A: I’m pretty minimalist. I like stud earrings and I wear this necklace that’s a gold from South Africa actually. It was my grandfather’s. It’s a Krugerrand, a South African coin.
Q: Was your grandfather from South Africa?
He wasn’t from there but he collected Krugerrands as an investment. South Africa was actually one of the last countries to use gold as currency. Their rand was real gold and traded for what it was worth, unlike any modern coins. He collected those coins. He passed away a number of years ago, but I love carrying his memory in this way. And I think that this coin also holds a lot of meaning for my mother, who was his daughter. It was a present from her for my law school graduation.
Q: Does it mean more to you now that you’re working at the Enough Project, trying to improve the way gold is mined in Africa?
A: Since joining Enough I’ve learned an enormous amount about gold. It is difficult for me to feel 100 percent comfortable owning gold now, including the coin. But especially with gold, understanding origins and what truly ethical consumer practices are is a process –for consumers, companies, and investors. I have more to learn about antique or recycled jewelry, or things that are inherited from generations past. It would be great to know if there is there a way to find out where those materials came from.
Q: Well, our perspective at Brilliant Earth would be that jewelry made from reused or repurposed material is an ethical and eco-friendly choice because it doesn’t require any new mining. I think the fact that it’s a family heirloom and not a new piece made with unethical gems or minerals—that what’s important.
A: I’m glad you say that. I think these are all important conversations to be having inside and outside the industry, since jewelry is a part of almost every culture and it often carries sentimental value.
Q: I want to ask you one more thing. If you could say anything to jewelry consumers, what would you tell them?
A: I think the most important thing to know is that you can make a difference. The war and peace building efforts in Congo are overwhelming ideas, and they can feel far away, or hopeless. But we are seeing incredible progress driven by individual consumer action. One thing that actually can make a big difference is simply asking questions when you’re shopping. Every time you buy a piece of jewelry or something with minerals, every time you go to the Apple store, just ask the question: do you know if these materials are conflict free? What’s your company’s policy on conflict minerals? Strike up a conversation with someone working in the store.
I think people think, “Oh, this person at the cash register isn’t going to know anything. Why would I even ask?” But you might be surprised by how much they actually know. More and more companies are doing employee trainings. And if you just get a deer in the headlights look or “I have no idea” or “I’ll ask my manager,” that pushes them to find out from their managers or CEOs, which encourages new conversations at the top executive levels of these companies. We’ve been seeing this happen. Consumers are pushing those transformations in corporate behavior, and it starts with a question.