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'It's about ensuring natural resources are used to benefit populations'

Global supply chain transparency in the trade of raw materials needs further development to stop exploitation. Joanne Lebert, executive director of Partnership Africa Canada, talks to DW about the challenges.

DW: Joanne, you're in Berlin this week to speak at the international conference on commodities. What relevance do commodities have for developing countries and what impact do the lower market prices have at the moment?

Joanne Lebert: Commodities and raw materials in particular are an important part of the economies of developing countries. While we work in many countries in Africa, my work in particular focuses on [Democratic Republic of] Congo], where we see a classic case of rich natural resources - incredible potential for development, if the sector is managed responsibly and if there is accountability.

So it can really be a vector for investment and socio-economic development and change. Unfortunately that is not the case most of the time, and in the situations of fragile states and post-conflict situations it becomes actually a source of instability and insecurity, so the role of commodities in developing countries - particularly in fragile states - is absolutely critical.

How transparent are supply chains at the moment?

There's a great deal of progress that's been made. There have been important commitments to transparencies that have been mandated and legally recognized in Africa's Great Lakes regions, and this has been progressive over the past few years.

We're at the point where there are real commitments to transparency that are recognized by the laws of the countries of Africa's Great Lakes regions, but these have yet really to be translated into meaningful change and or operationalized in some way. There are challenges that are just sort of a capacity, there are challenges that are just sort of related to what kind of data can be released, what is seen as doable in terms of operational ability.

Can you explain perhaps in a nutshell what this regional certification mechanism tries to achieve?

The ICGLR, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, is a member-based, intergovernmental body comprised of 12 member states - so Congo, all its immediate neighbors, plus Kenya and Sudan. And the resource certification mechanism really draws on the lessons learned from the Kimberly process and other resource governance initiatives to address the illegal exploitation of natural resources; the usage of these minerals by negative forces - both armed groups and occasionally the military - to protract and curb the financing of illicit flows.

These are essentially the big objectives of the regional certification mechanism - ultimately to improve governance, if not just about cleaning up supply chains. It's about governance and peace and ensuring that natural resources are used to benefit populations, and when we're talking about governance it's obviously about addressing certain inequalities and power structures as well - in terms of how these materials are being extracted and traded.

Joanne Lebert

Joanne Lebert says while progress has been made, some challenges still need to be overcome

How well do you think this whole certification process is working? What status is it at?

This is a massive undertaking. There is a declaration called the Lusaka Declaration that all member states - all 12 - signed in December 2010 and implementation took some time to begin. I'm from Canada, and if the Canadian sector and the Canadian government were to do this it would be a large undertaking. In the context of Africa where there is a governance vacuum in some of these countries, and where the capacity just isn't there, it's a long commitment and ultimately of course it is about development and peace building, not just cleaning up supply chains, so it's a massive overhaul.

There has been progress in DRC, Rwanda and increasingly in Uganda - those are the critical states, let's say, either the major producers or the major transit points - but they are at various stages of implementation. Rwanda has carried out mine inspections throughout the country, it has a chain of custody system operational, so 100 percent coverage and training on export procedures.

But at the moment all the mechanisms to do with verification, third party audits, regional ombudsman to verify the integrity of change custody systems - all that kind of monitoring - have yet to happen, so there are various components of the system that are set up. But in the case of Rwanda and DRC, the verification of those systems is still happening and is ongoing, so compliance has not yet been verified. This will happen eventually over time, and in other member states like Kenya and Tanzania, the certification mechanism is just starting to get underway. Some of the issues being addressed here are quite challenging, obviously.

It's international trade we're talking about and it has to be transparent on all parts of the supply chain: both the OCD and the EU, for instance, have legislation to foster responsible supply chains when it comes to conflict areas in particular. To what extent do you see such measures really improving transparency and responsibilities in countries that you just mentioned?

Well, if you take the example of the US legislation, Dodd-Frank, countries of the region had agreed to do something about some of the high value minerals, notably tin, tungsten, tantum and gold, that were directly linked to the illegal exploitation of natural resources and to conflict.

It was all very nice on paper and there were protocols and a pact related to its implementation to do something about these issues, but it was only when legislation abroad, and notably the Dodd-Frank legislation, was adopted, or rolled out, that the states of the Great Lakes Region really started to worry about their export market.

It was only then that we saw implementation - the fact that it was mandatory - really kick-started in the region, and we will see an impact in the region if there are similar legislative approaches to this that are mandatory.

For the EU for example, when it is considering what to do next, I think it will have to be mandatory across the supply chain: if it's not, I don't think it's going to have much of an impact. Of course it needs to be well thought out, it needs to have some flexibility - essentially monitoring what is going on, assessing risks, public reporting on what your company has done in response to that risk. That transparency, and that mandatory component, is what is going to affect change; without that I don't think it is going to have much of an impact.

How really conflict-free are these so-called conflict-free mines that we sometimes hear about?

I think that there has been tremendous progress. I think there is, however, maybe some confusion in terminology that is a bit difficult to translate from the technical side into the kind of popular media side: indeed there are a number of mine sites throughout the Congo and Rwanda that have been certified as conflict-free.

When we talk about certified mine sites, we are only talking about mine sites that have been inspected and validated. So that is one component of the larger certification program. Maybe that's why people are not understanding the distinction between an entire trading chain from mine site to export getting certified or just the mine site itself. It is quite accurate that many mine sites in the DRC in particular have been certified conflict-free and are conflict-free, but that is only one component of certification, so the whole chain is not fully certified.

Joanne Lebert is Partnership Africa Canada's executive director. Her role is to improve governance of natural resources in the African region, with a focus on contributing to responsibly-sourced, conflict-free minerals. Joanne helped launch and execute a regional strategy by Central African governments to stop conflict minerals.

This interview was conducted by Anke Rasper.

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