Big news on conflict minerals today, as Thaisarco, one of the largest tin smelters in the world and a subsidiary of the multinational metals giant Amalgamated Metals Corporation, announced that it would suspend purchasing tin from Congo. Thaisarco was identified by the U.N. experts as purchasing minerals from sources connected to the notorious FDLR militia.
Given that there is no ban on Congolese minerals, and that advocacy organizations like Enough have not been calling for companies to stop purchasing, Thaisarco’s decision is regrettable.
Thaisarco’s suspension will have a major impact on the Congolese minerals trade, with both challenges and opportunities in the weeks and months ahead. Will traders cease operations or face a de facto embargo from their international buyers? I just returned from spending a couple of weeks in eastern Congo, and although business was somewhat affected by the previous decision of metals trader Traxys to suspend purchasing, it was clear that the trade had mostly weathered the shock. In any case, the Congolese government and international donors should closely watch the trade patterns and be prepared to provide those miners whose livelihoods might be impacted with alternative economic opportunities. Most miners working in abysmal conditions in eastern Congo do so because of a lack of other options. Jobs building basic infrastructure like roads or opportunities to restart agriculture would leave these communities less dependent on the mines.
In terms of opportunities, Thaisarco’s decision sends a strong signal to the critical actors in the trade—the Congolese traders and middlemen with the knowledge and opportunity to be able to exercise strict due diligence as to which sources they purchase from—that they need to clean up their act or face a shrinking market. Thaisarco has actually been participating in an industry-driven initiative to develop a certification scheme for minerals from eastern Congo, and as Thaisarco Chairman Gilles Robbins put it to Reuters:
“The mineral trade working with key stakeholders could, given the constructive engagement of all advocacy groups, be the catalyst for the return of security and economic prosperity to the Congo.”
It is critical that “constructive engagement” be contingent on a credible process within the industry to trace minerals back to their mines of origin, with independent verification of the process through rigorous auditing, to be sure that certification doesn’t just paper over the continued financing of violence through the trade.
I hope that Thaisarco and its tin industry associates recognize that suspending purchasing from Congo does not relieve them of their responsibility to work together with the Congolese government and other actors in the supply chain to reform the trade so that it actually benefits the Congolese people.