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fondazionecariellocorbino / africa  / Africa doesn’t exist, part 3. Corporations and CSR: the influence on human rights in the Congo’s mining industry

Africa doesn’t exist, part 3. Corporations and CSR: the influence on human rights in the Congo’s mining industry

Africa does not exist. Take a look at the newspapers today, listen to the news: it just doesn’t exist. Just as its immense diversity does not exist, what makes each African country unique and so different from another. But we still refuse to recognize Africa, its diversity, its potential, its dreams. As if we were frightened of it and wanted to dismiss the idea that this continent may one day rise up and look us in the eye.

We asked Brynn Crawford, a student at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, while carrying out her internship in Human Rights at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento – Italy, to summarize as much as possible 3 “faces” of our Africa, with the intention of making them available to a wider public. This is the third one: what can we do to solve problems which just seem to be too big and too far way from us?

Background. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country located in central Africa. With an area of 905,400 square miles, it is the second-largest country on the continent (after Algeria) and the largest of the sub-Saharan countries. As of July 2021, it is estimated that the DRC has a population of 105 million people. This makes the DRC the 4th most populous country in Africa and the 15th most populous country in the world.[1] The population of the Congo has been growing steadily over time, with the average growth rate hovering around 3 percent. Because of this steady growth rate, the country also has a very young population with 46.38 percent of the population being between 0-14 years of age. While the population growth has been rather steady, the country’s economic growth rate has been nothing short of sporadic. In 1962 The DRC reached an all-time high economic growth rate of 21%, in 1993 they hit an all-time low of -13.5 percent.[2] Currently the country’s economic growth is yet again on the decline at 0.8 percent in 2020.[3] This sporadic economic growth can be directly linked to a combination of systemic governmental corruption, and national instability due to armed conflict. These issues have plagued the country since its independence from Belgium in 1960. In 2020 the Democratic Republic of the Congo received a score of 18/100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI).[4] The CPI uses “expert assessments and opinion surveys” to rank countries “on a scale from 100 (very clean) to 0 (highly corrupt).” Thus, the DRC’s score indicates that its public sector is perceived to be highly corrupt.

DRC mining industry. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a diverse geography, it is home to the world’s second-largest rainforest in the west, a volcanic mountainous region in the east, and savannahs and grasslands situated in-between. Because of this geographic diversity, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is endowed with almost every valuable natural resource, including large mineral deposits of coltan, cobalt, gold, diamonds, etc. However, even with the country’s seemingly endless supply of mineral resources, the DRC has one of the highest rates of impoverishment in the world.[5] Additionally, in 2020 the United Nations Human Development Index ranked the Democratic Republic of the Congo the 175th least developed out of 189 countries.[6]Many scholars believe that the impoverishment and underdevelopment in the DRC can be linked to a phenomenon known as the “resource curse.” This phenomenon occurs in countries with abundant natural resources. The phenomenon of the resource curse is marked by affected countries having less economic growth and worse developmental outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is particularly rich in the mineral’s cobalt and coltan. These minerals are highly sought after by the technology industry, as they are primarily used in the manufacturing of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, such as those used to power expensive electronic devices like mobile phones, and laptop computers. It is believed that in 2014 half of the cobalt used in making these batteries was mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[7]  And in 2019 it was reported that the DRC was responsible for mining 40 percent of the world’s coltan supply.[8]

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has faced a turbulent history over the years and has been marred by years of conflict; beginning with its independence from Belgium in the 1960s to the civil wars and continued conflict we see today. Because of the country’s turbulent history, the mining industry has developed in such a way that it has continued to operate despite the sustained conflict. However, not all development is for the betterment of society. Throughout the 1990s, the DRC was thrown into two civil wars. This instability caused many foreign companies in the country, including those in the mining industry, to leave and seek business opportunities elsewhere. Due to this mass exodus, the DRC’s largest industrial mining operation closed, and the country was thrown into economic turmoil. This left thousands of individuals without any form of income, worsening the country’s poverty crisis. To combat this, many former mineworkers, as well as everyday citizens and children, have taken up the practice of “artisanal mining”- hand digging mine tunnels to gather and sell the mine’s lucrative cobalt supply on their own. After the second civil war had subsided, foreign companies began to return to the area and resume mining. Currently, there are around 25 mining companies active in the DRC, with many of them being owned by foreign countries. However, it is still currently estimated that 20 percent of the country’s cobalt exports are generated by artisanal miners.[9] The minerals, whether generated by small scale artisanal miners, or large-scale foreign mining operations (such as those owned by Australia, China, The United Kingdom, and the United States), are then sold to traders, who then sell the minerals to multibillion-dollar technology firms such as Apple, Google, Tesla, and Microsoft[10]. While slightly better off than the majority of the population (who live on 1.90 U.S. dollars a day[11]) the miners themselves will only make between 2-3 U.S. dollars for a whole day’s work.[12]  Both the formal (company owned) and informal (artisanal) mining sectors come with their own risk sets. However, those working in the formal mining sector are slightly more protected than those who work in the informal sector. Artisanal mining comes with a myriad of risks and very little reward. While governmental regulations on both sectors do exist, many argue that they do not do enough to protect the workers. The government provides little to no instruction on how to safely build and manage artisanal mines.[13] Due to this lack of information, artisanal mining tunnels often lack appropriate structural support and proper ventilation. This puts artisanal miners at an increased risk of death due to asphyxiation or tunnel collapse. In addition to the lack of regulations on how to construct and maintain the tunnels, there is also little to no information on how a miner should safely handle the mineral they are mining.[14] Many miners in the DRC, particularly in the artisanal sector, lack access to basic protective equipment; this, coupled with poor ventilation, puts mineworkers at an increased risk for health problems associated with exposure to these minerals. One of the most common health issues reported by miners in the DRC is “hard metal lung disease” (also known as pulmonary fibrosis.) This is a condition in which the lung tissue thickens and stiffens due to damage and scarring, making it increasingly more difficult for the affected individual to breathe. Some other commonly reported health issues by cobalt miners include asthma, shortness of breath, and dermatitis[15].

With new forms of technology being invented so frequently, the demand for cobalt is without a doubt on the rise. One would expect that the miners of such an in-demand resource would see major improvements in working conditions, as what they do is very valuable to large technology companies; however, this is not the case. Mine workers in both the DRC’s informal and formal sectors put their lives and health at risk every day to feed the growing global demand for cobalt and coltan but have very little to show for it. With the exponential growth of the technology industry and the demand for these minerals, mineworkers are still forced to work in unsafe and inhumane conditions for very little pay. All of this takes place while the technology industry nets billions of dollars every year in profits from the sale of smartphones, laptop computers, and many other electronic devices.

CSR and the DRC. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is defined as “a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable—to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. By practicing corporate social responsibility, also called corporate citizenship, companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental.”[16]  This great disparity between mineworker and technology company, is due to the fact that the large companies that buy cobalt and coltan from the DRC do not take any responsibility for the conditions under which it is mined, or by whom it is mined. This lack of corporate social responsibility has contributed heavily to the stagnation of the DRC’s economy. With its vast assortment of natural resources, the DRC could easily be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. However, in 2018 it was estimated that 73% of the Congolese population (about 60 million people) lived on less than $1.90 a day.[17] This is hardly enough money to cover basic living necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing, much less education. The people of the Congo struggle everyday just to survive and afford the most basic things they need, and for most families there is no room for spending on anything that is not essential. Thus, the “recreational” spending that is needed to grow economies simply does not exist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The government, large international mining companies, and the technology industry continue to fail the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo every day by putting economic gain ahead of the basic needs of everyday citizens. In failing to promote humane and sustainable mining practices, as well as fair wages, these entities are conspiring to keep the population of the DRC in “survival mode”- meaning they must work and provide goods to these companies in order to be able to afford even the most basic living necessities, thus eliminating any chance of upward mobility in life.

Any important change that has ever occurred first started with awareness. When awareness is brought to an important issue, and more people know about injustices taking place, there is greater opportunity for something to be done to correct the wrongdoing. In this instance, large technology companies, who purchase cobalt and coltan from the DRC, are beholden to consumers to purchase the products they sell. Due to this dependent relationship, the consumers hold an immense amount of power – namely that of purchasing power. By withholding their purchasing power or exercising it elsewhere, consumers can place pressure on companies to improve their CSR practices. In doing this, the consumer can help to combat injustices like the irresponsible sourcing of minerals and the human rights abuses taking place in the DRC’s mines.

[1] “Central Intelligence Agency- Congo, Democratic Republic of the.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/congo-democratic-republic-of-the/

[2] “GDP Growth (Annual %) – Congo, Dem. Rep.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=CD.

[3] “GDP Growth (Annual %) – Congo, Dem. Rep.” Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=CD.

[4] “2020 – Corruption Perception Index.” Transparency International, www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020.

[5] “Overview- DRC.” World Bank, 2 Apr. 2021, www.worldbank.org/en/country/drc/overview

[6] “Human Development Reports.” | Human Development Reports, United Nations, 2020, hdr.undp.org/en/2020 report.

[7]   The US Geological Survey (USGS), Mineral Commodity Summary: Cobalt 2015.

[8] “Why It’s Hard for Congo’s Coltan Miners to Abide by the Law.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/01/21/why-its-hard-for-congos-coltan-miners-to-abide-by-the-law.

[9] “Amnesty International. ‘This Is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt.’”  Amnesty International.

[10]  “Top Tech Firms Sued over DR Congo Cobalt Mining Deaths.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Dec. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50812616.

[11] “Overview- DRC.” World Bank, 2 Apr. 2021, www.worldbank.org/en/country/drc/overview

[12] “This Is Where Your Smartphone Battery Begins.” The Washington Post, WP Company, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/.

[13] “Amnesty International. ‘This Is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt.’”  Amnesty International.

[14] “Amnesty International. ‘This Is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt.’”  Amnesty International.

[15] “Amnesty International. ‘This Is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt.’”  Amnesty International.

[16] Fernando, Jason. “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).” Investopedia, Investopedia, 6 July 2021, www.investopedia.com/terms/c/corp-social-responsibility.asp. 

[17]  “Overview- DRC.” World Bank, 2 Apr. 2021, www.worldbank.org/en/country/drc/overview.