Peeling back the skin of 'blood' resources
Much has been written about conflict—or "blood”—resources such as coltan, a mineral used in the manufacture of electronics, and diamonds, from Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sierra Leone. Far less information, however, has been provided about the broader processes that facilitate and finance conflicts in these places. It is rare that the questions "In whose interest?" or "For whose benefit?" are posed.
During a recent investigation into suppliers of "blood coltan" (traditionally defined as coltan exploited by, and used to finance, militias) from the DRC, I learned that whether or not the system, is characterised as one supplying 'blood' minerals, it is, invariably, broken. Coltan production is so often correlated with the deprivation of basic needs, weak, corrupt government, dismal labor conditions, arrested and indebted political economies, and the fundamental lack of just institutions and rule of law, means that even coltan produced in 'non-militarised' areas, is deemed a conflict mineral.
This is because exploitation of the mineral is 'incentivised' through desperation, limited employment options, and the type of seen and unseen coercion that imprisons citizens by default. As such, the natural – and national - resources of the DRC, estimated at $24 trillion, is depleted through a 'first-come first-serve' mentality that facilitates conflict rather than development. International and national institutions and actors, including multinational corporations and some well-intentioned donors, contribute to the system's corruption and are in turn corrupted by it.
Posing as a small import-export firm based in Tanzania, I was offered 70 tons of 40-percent pure coltan for $3,000 per ton by a local comptoir officially registered as an "import-export" agent. He informed me that mines and areas of origins for the coltan could never be ascertained since comptoirs only note the volume, purity, amount, and recipient—eliminating in one swift move the paper trail of the mineral. I was told that the supplier could meet me in a matter of hours.
Other sources informed me that for anywhere from $3 to $10, quality large-gem diamonds from the DRC also could be provided. These gems, I was told, could quickly fund the build-up or maintenance of an armed group, since Kalashnikov rifles could be purchased for about $15.
Even in "non-militarized" regions where coltan is mined, conditions can be brutal. Miners, many of them very young, work for very little simply to survive. They see very little of the $1 per kilogram paid to their employers by comptoirs (trading houses).
Does this type of “demilitarized” labor—seemingly by choice or voluntary coercion due to a lack of alternative options—remove the imprint of "conflict?" Or does it simply cloak it in legitimacy? If resources are liquidated in transparently exploitative arrangements—minimal wages, brutal working conditions, socio-environmental damage, as well as significant fiscal exemptions for the respectable multinationals involved – do they qualify for the title of "conflict" resources? And if such resources often correspond to financial flight, whether illicit (revenue avoidance/ corporate mispricing) or outright illegal, does this add yet another layer of conflict?
If not, where have we gone wrong?
It would be easier at this point to unpack the issue of Zimbabwe's 'blood diamonds'. In August last year, the eight year-old 'blood diamond' watchdog, Kimberly Process, supervised $72 million in sales from the country's Marange diamond fields. These diamonds were largely mined under the direct surveillance of the brutal ZANU-PF military as well as companies operating in complete secrecy. The Marange fields are estimated at $800 billion in wealth, yet as the Zimbabwe Mining Development Company (ZDMC) revealed before the Zimbabwean parliament, little or no revenue since the discovery of the mine in 2006 had been remitted to the State. The revenue, in fact, was channeled through a secrecy jurisdiction (Mauritius) effectively preventing any scrutiny.
Yet Zimbabwe's corrupt and autocratic government does not fit the bill of 'blood diamond' – defined by the Kimberly Process - as diamonds used to fund rebel militias. Nor would the role opaque jurisdictions even register as an act of corruption - though it very clearly is.
“The Zimbabwe diamonds are not blood diamonds. The mines are modern and they are well managed, but they’re apparently in the wrong political system,” said Chaim-Evan Zohar, President of Tacy Ltd. Diamond Industry Consultants.
Could it be said, however, that irrespective of the real or imagined 'physical' conflict in a country or region, systems that dispossess and marginalise the public interest constitute the root of 'conflict', requiring us to broaden the geography to include these political structures? If so, it might be time to take another look at resources like cotton, water, oil, coal and iron that are cousins of, yet seems a hundreds miles away from, the blood minerals that have the world's undivided attention.