Making Congolese tin 'conflict-free'
Minerals have long been a source of bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rival militias compete for control over natural resources. A transparency scheme aims to cut the conflict out of Congolese tin.
Keeping militias away
Artisanal miners at the tin ore mine in Kalimbi were among the first in Eastern Congo to use a "bag and tag" system. It's hoped the scheme - which allows the tin to be validated and tracked from the moment it leaves the mine - will prevent the spoils falling into the hands of militias.
Securing a future for mines
The Kalimbi area has a troubled history, with several militias competing for its mineral resources. The Kalimbi tin mine was chosen by the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI) as the site of its first "conflict-free" project in an attempt to ensure the long term survival of communities that depend on mining for their livelihoods.
A harsh reality
Kalimbi in South Kivu is one of around 900 mines in the region. Safari Masumbuko, 25, has been working in the mine for more than 12 years. "I would love to do something else, but in this region there isn't any other job," he says. Many unemployed young men end up fighting in a militia.
Life in the mines
While an effort is being made to cut violence out of the Congolese resources trade, conditions are far from perfect for workers. Many artisanal miners spend 12 hours at a time in narrow tunnels hundreds of meters underground, without safety helmets or sturdy shoes.
Closing 'conflict-mineral' channels
In 2010 the US passed the Dodd-Frank Act, requiring companies to certify their minerals were "conflict free." While the law aimed to combat poverty in the DRC, it prompted many companies to stop buying minerals from their mines. "Life was a hell," says Ajeje Munguiko, 27. "We had to sell our clothes to be able to buy food for our children."
Bringing business back
Dutch diplomat Jaime de Bourbon-Parma helped implement the pilot "bag and tag" system in the Kalimbi mine together with the ITRI in 2012. It requires each bag to be weighed and labeled with a "conflict-free" barcode. The diplomat hopes the validation system, and the chance to buy "clean" tin, will bring buyers back to the DRC.
No escape from violence
Miners say they've faced less harassment from armed groups since the transparency scheme was implemented. But intimidation still happens from time to time. For example, last year an army commander tried to smuggle tin from Kalimbi. Authorities were too afraid to take action - only after international pressure did the government suspend the man.
Clean versus contaminated
Lack of transparency, however, remains a challenge for the artisanal mining sector. There have been cases of corrupt mine officials selling "conflict-free" tags at $20 (14 euros) for labeling dirty tin, says Eric Kajemba, who heads a local NGO. "Mine officials only earn $60 a month, so they are still easy to bribe."
More mines, better price
"The tag and bag system is good, but the price of the tin is way too low," says Madeleine Witanene, 50, a broker from the village of Niyabibwe. She believes the price is low because so far only a few exporters are buying tagged minerals. Expanding the tagging system to other mines could boost competition and improve working conditions for miners.
Precious black powder
Eastern Congo has three percent of the world's tin ore, which resembles a fine black powder after it's been refined. Companies such as Phillips and Tata Steel use the "conflict-free" tin from Kalimbi in lamp sockets, cans and metal plates.
A model for other mines
The success of the "tag and bag" scheme in cutting violence out of tin mining now depends largely on the willingness of other companies to support the project's expansion. Following the defeat of the M23 rebel group, ITRI plans to launch a "bag and tag" system in Rubaya, North Kivu. Many other sites have also been flagged.