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10 September 2017 at 11:07 pm
By Babs McHugh
The global thirst for the minerals needed for new technologies has unearthed the unethical practices of miners in some African countries
The demand for batteries for smart phones, tablets, laptop computers and battery storage is fuelling a tech-metals boom.
Exploration and mining of lithium, vanadium, graphite, cobalt, silver, tantalum, rare earths and the hybrid metal called coltan is only set to in increase.
Coltan is short for a combined columbite-tantalite ore that, when refined, produces becomes metallic tantalum which is used in capacitors
However there is growing concern that it is also fuelling the unethical practices by miners in some African countries.
Coltan mined in The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is called a ‘conflict mineral’ by human rights groups.
Andrea Shaw, the manager for the Global Mining for Sustainable Development Program with Transparency International, said conflict minerals were almost universally minerals that were mined illegally.
“The DRC is a very good example of that where it is often slaves or children or people paid very poorly who are forced by armed militia to do the mining.”
“Then profits of the ore or gems or whatever they illegally mined, go to financing civil unrest by funding local militia and providing arms.”
The illegal mining of coltan is not confined to the DRC, the vast deposit to extends into neighbouring Burundi and Rwanda, home of endangered gorilla species.
The gorillas are not only affected by direct mining, their mountain habitats are cut down for access routes and they are poached and eaten by the impoverished miners as bush meat.
The Grauer gorillas, which is only found in the DRC is now on the critically endangered list, with numbers dramatically falling in the last decades.
There are international covenants and agreements in place to deal with conflict minerals, but illegal mining continues regardless in the DRC and Rwanda.
According to Ms Shaw, fighting conflict minerals is very complex but one way of dealing with the issue is to put the onus on the end buyers of the minerals.
“There’s been a big effort already with diamonds, with the Kimberly Process in place,” she said.
“Countries that sell diamonds have to certify they haven’t been mined illegally, and that profits are not financing conflict.
“The other effort that’s been made in the west is through legislation. In the EU there’s a directive that requires companies to be transparent about the supply chains.
“And in the US they have the Dodd Frank law, which includes a requirement for companies that use minerals to ensure they do not come from conflict zones.
Legislation is now before the US Senate to revoke the Dodd Frank law, but Ms Shaw is hopeful if that happens, end-use companies will continue to ask for greater transparency.
“These minerals are essential to high-tech products, and for example Apple is a big buyer.
“Apple is on the record that it will continue diligence requirements, even if Dodd-Frank is repealed, and ensure their supply chains are clean.”
Opportunity for Australian miners to market tech-metals
There are already strong ties between the Australian and African mining sectors.
There are hundreds of Australian companies in the exploration, mining, engineering and service companies already on the continent.
Perth is home to the Australia-Africa Minerals and Energy group (AAEMEG) and the two nations also collaborate on mining, sustainability and governance.
But Australia is already home to many of the in demand tech-metals, and some companies say they could capitalise on the strong environmental and governance standards already in place.
The last few years have seen an explosion in exploration for, and finding, lithium, cobalt, rare earths, vanadium and graphite across the nation.
Ardea Resources has a cobalt project near the West Australian town of Kalgoorlie, cobalt is an essential ingredient in lithium-iron batteries where it used in the cathode.
Managing Director Matt Painter said it would be some time before conflict minerals were adequately dealt with.
“Clearly it’s not all miners in the DRC that are involved in illegal mining. Some do have clean supply lines,” he said.
“But cobalt from there has been tainted by perception, and companies like Apple, LG Chem, Samsung, and others are looking elsewhere.”
“It’s necessary for any company involved in end-use to take action and to clean up supply lines.
“We should be looking at downstream processing to provide directly into that market; for example a nickel, cobalt sulphate concentrate.”
Ms Shaw warns that trying to halt all mining in Africa would be a mistake.
She encourages ongoing commitment from Australian companies in both mining and in governance.
“Africa relies on trading these minerals, and there’s a strong need in Africa for these developments,” she said.
“The importance of the mining industry for development in Africa is unquestionable, so I would be disappointed if there is a pull back on mining investment.”
Doctor Kevin Uramam, a senior adviser to the President of the African Development Bank said the problems with conflict minerals was broad, and would only be improved by better private and government engagement and standards across the board.
“This (conflict minerals) is not only about the Congo,” he said.
“It is about how capitalism proceeds across all African countries.
“They need to engage with the indigenous communities, engage with civil society, the political class, the public and private sectors.
“And also governments need to be educated so that they will be able to know the value of their resources, the value of participatory democracy and the value of doing business well.”