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A Year Later, Conflict Minerals Law Provokes Debate

It’s not very often that Congress passes new legislation aimed at breaking the link between violence and gold mining. So last summer, when Congress approved a law aimed at stopping the export of certain “conflict minerals”—gold, as well as tin, tantalum, and tungsten—from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we expressed our strong support. Now, with debate about the effects of the law becoming heated, we would like to reiterate that support.


To begin, it’s important to remember why the law was passed. Since 1998, Congo has been embroiled in a terrible civil war. More than 5 million lives have been lost to violence, disease, and starvation. A million people have been displaced from their homes, and 200,000 women have suffered from sexual violence. Although the war is an ethnic conflict, mining profits have been helping to sustain the violence. The new law, a provision in the Dodd Frank financial reform legislation, responds to this situation by requiring more transparency. Certain large, publicly-traded companies will need to identify whether the minerals in their products come from Congo. If so, they will need to explain the precautions they are taking to ensure that their minerals are not tied to the conflict.


The jewelry and electronics industries are among those most affected by the law. (Most gold is used to make jewelry. Tin, tantalum, and tungsten are common components of cell phones, laptops, and other electronics.) At Brilliant Earth, we use only recycled and fair trade gold in our jewelry, allowing us to be certain that none of our gold contributes to the conflict in Congo. However, many companies are unable to say with certainty whether the minerals in their products are contributing to the war—though a year after the law’s passage, this situation may be changing. We are pleased by reports that some companies, prompted by the law, are investigating the origins of the minerals in their products and in some cases altering their suppliers.


The law seems to be working. Why then, is it facing criticism? Some opposition seems to consist of grumbling from companies about compliance costs and the difficulty of tracing fungible minerals, such as gold. These complaints are to be expected. The SEC should consider them, but we hope that the law’s final implementing regulations, due later this year, are not weakened as a result.


In addition, some of the most pointed criticism has been launched by a different group: well-meaning observers concerned that the law is having unintended consequences. For instance,  one journalist writes in a recent New York Times op-ed that the law, by casting a shadow over Congo’s minerals, is taking away income from Congo’s artisanal miners.


There are hundreds of thousands of artisanal miners in Congo who dedicate themselves to minerals mining. These miners, most of whom are poor, use simple tools and methods to mine for gold and other minerals. Only a portion of the minerals produced by these artisanal miners helps fund the conflict. (Indeed, the conflict is mostly confined to an area along Congo’s eastern border.) However, critics of the law note that companies are becoming reluctant to associate themselves with any minerals from Congo–even minerals not associated with the conflict. Mineral exports from Congo have dropped and, as a result, some artisanal miners have found themselves without work.


At Brilliant Earth, we strongly believe that artisanal miners in Congo and elsewhere deserve a chance at a decent living. In fact, through our non-profit fund, we are supporting a program aimed at increasing the bargaining power of artisanal diamond diggers in eastern Congo. So we are truly concerned that the law may be having negative economic consequences for some of Congo’s miners.


On the other hand, we wish to express our continued support for the new law. Human rights groups believe that, due to the law, mineral profits used by Congolese military commanders to fund the war are drying up. Returning to the old status quo, in which the combatants were able to exploit Congo’s minerals with impunity, doesn’t seem like a good option to us. The war is simply too terrible and destructive not to try measures that could dampen the violence. (For a better sense of the scale of the violence and the link to minerals mining, we recommend viewing this 60 Minutes report from November 2009.)


The new law doesn’t ban the export of Congo’s minerals to the United States; it simply requires more transparency. Thus, instead of questioning the existence of the law, we think that all of those who care about Congo should work together, with much greater urgency, to improve transparency in Congo’s artisanal mining sector. If the minerals produced by Congo’s artisanal miners can become more traceable, artisanal miners will find more buyers for their non-conflict minerals. And perhaps, out of all this change, a different sort of mining sector can emerge in Congo—one that is both free of violence and fairer to Congo’s miners.


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