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Congo conflict minerals bill hurts the miners it hopes to help

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Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

(Read caption) Gold miners form a human chain while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine in the Kilomoto concession near the village of Kobu, 100 km (62 miles) from Bunia in north-eastern Congo on Feb. 23, 2009.

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From the Wall Street Journal's editorial page (gated), a piece on the unintended consequences of the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals provisions:

The highest price is being paid in central Africa, where millions of people, and 16% of the Congo's population, are dependent on small-time digging. By all accounts most of the money from central African mining goes to these artisanal miners. Soldiers and rebels do pocket some of the proceeds, and that's a depressing reality.

But mineral operations also provide the local population with centers of commerce, with cash to pay for supplies and workers and easily traded goods. As money from the mines becomes increasingly scarce, Congo's warlords have moved on to targeting the banana trade. Perhaps conflict-free bananas will be the next object of activist enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the butchery continues, with recent reports of government troops raping more than 100 women and children over a three-day spree in the Congo's South Kivu region. If all the money from minerals dries up, these killers will not shy from even more atrocious means to fund their ambitions. As for Western policy makers, Section 1502 is a useful lesson in how well-meaning attempts to "do something" in Africa unintentionally harm the innocent without touching the guilty.

I'm not sure where the WSJ got the 16% figure on the percentage of Congolese who depend on the mineral trade (certainly that would include people working in the non-conflict-affected commercial mines in Katanga and it is less likely that they are being so strongly affected by the ban) or whether it is accurate, but certainly the editorial team's conclusion is correct. Because it is almost impossible to verify whether minerals sourced from the DRC or its neighbors are truly conflict-free, electronics companies now have a strong incentive to source minerals elsewhere, leaving Congolese miners unemployed. While the advocates behind this provision claim to have never intended to create a boycott on Congolese minerals, their poor understanding of the near-impossibility of creating a reliable tracing scheme in a place where almost every public official can be bribed (not to mention that they don't understand the real drivers of conflict) means that there is now in place a de facto boycott on minerals from the conflict zones.

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Moreover, cutting off demand for Congolese minerals on international markets does absolutely nothing to stop violence against civilians and only makes life for many civilians worse by leaving them with no viable means of financially supporting themselves or their families.

This was a completely predicable result and one that speaks to the irresponsibility of advocates who identified a solution without first really understanding the problems the region faces. The only question in my mind is why smart lawmakers like Representative Jim McDermott and reputable companies like HP continue to take advice from advocates who have very limited experience in the eastern Congo, don't speak French, and push policies that reflect a poor understanding the dynamics of conflict in the region. By pursuing policies that leave formerly employed miners out of work, they have actually made life worse for Congolese who live in the mining regions while doing almost nothing to substantially help to improve the situation. And it is not at all clear what anyone is doing or will do to help them pick up the pieces.

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs at Texas in Africa.

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