Valentin was in trouble. His arms were tied behind his back and he couldn’t move. The sun was beating down in the courtyard of the mining company where he and his friends were being held.
The men had been arrested by mining police for peacefully protesting the low price of the coltan ore they had dug out by hand from deep narrow shafts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Western activists have sought to help end violence in Congo by championing conflict-free mineral policies that aim to stop armed groups profiting from the trade. But thousands of miners like Valentin are paying a heavy price. At his mine, Kisengo, a monopoly on clean coltan has kept prices low, reduced revenues, and driven some miners to trade their wares illegally or move into the illicit artisanal gold sector.
A proposed executive order by US President Donald Trump reportedly seeks to cancel those regulatory controls. The draft order, obtained by The Guardian and Intercept, claims to be acting out of concern over “mounting evidence” that instead of preventing minerals from fuelling conflict, these controls are actually causing harm and contributing to instability in the region. On this occasion, Trump may have a point. A months-long IRIN investigation in mineral-rich eastern Congo found that some artisanal mining communities have suffered serious consequences as a result of the new conflict-free rules.
Several thousand self-employed miners work alongside Valentin  in the Kisengo mine. Like him, they’re only allowed to sell to a single company. That company, MMR, is a pioneer in the supply of untainted minerals. It has exclusive rights to purchase the entire production of the four main artisanal mines in what was formerly Katanga Province – now four smaller provinces.
“We don’t set prices. We impose them on miners.” That’s how one MMR employee, who asked for anonymity, explained the relationship.
 Name changed. Although one of MMR’s employees confirmed the arrest of miners, the head office later denied having any knowledge of it.
Artisanal mining is one of the main sources of livelihoods in eastern Congo.
Like Valentin, some 240,000 miners work with just picks and shovels, under extreme conditions, to extract valuable minerals, among them coltan. The dark metallic ore contains the commercially important element tantalum, which is extracted and used to make key components in mobile phones and almost every other electronic device.
The forests and grasslands where the miners work are crisscrossed by armed militias, whose violence has led to millions of deaths since the 1990s. The motivations of these groups range from local grievances to regional proxy wars. But one thing many of them have in common is that they sustain themselves by taxing the natural resources trade – in particular minerals.
In reaction, human rights activists in the United States lobbied for a law, section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed in 2010 and requires publicly listed companies to determine whether their products contain “conflict minerals” produced in Congo.
The new rules provided the impetus for similar legislation in Congo and neighbouring countries. This year, the European Union will have its own version, which will apply worldwide. Whether these efforts have reduced conflict in Congo is hotly debated between activists and academics.
Passed in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2009 to tighten company oversight, Dodd-Frank was hugely unpopular with the Republican Party and is now under general assault by the Trump administration, which reportedly intends to suspend section 1502 for two years.
Keeping it clean
For minerals to remain truly conflict-free, their flow has to be kept separate from tainted materials.
It’s a challenge. The mines validated as conflict-free can be just a few hills away from those controlled by armed groups. And the trade is messy, with miners and mineral traders operating independently and constantly on the move across the region. Conflict minerals can easily leak into the supposedly clean supply chains.
“If you use the old trading networks… it’s almost impossible to track your minerals,” explained Ken Matthysen, who helped conduct a unique survey of more than 1,600 mines in eastern Congo for the Belgian research institute IPIS.
MMR has been at the forefront of efforts to produce bona fide conflict-free minerals. Its first clients included companies such as Fairphone and Motorola that make a big deal out of sourcing materials responsibly.
While other mines have more open access, potentially allowing tainted minerals to leak in, MMR goes to great pains to make sure its production is kept pure, from the shafts all the way to export.
The company was also among the first to implement a traceability scheme, called iTSCi, which currently channels nearly all of Congo’s legal coltan exports.
The production of conflict-free minerals kicked off in a village called Kisengo, in eastern Congo.
In 2007, large deposits were discovered there, which soon attracted the miners, with families and merchants in tow. More than 20,000 people arrived within the first year.
Indian businessmen were also attracted to Kisengo’s natural riches. In March 2010, their company, MMR, obtained the exclusive rights to purchase the entire production of Kisengo and three other large mining sites. This proved a particularly good deal as, around the same time, the price of tantalum doubled on international markets.
The contract between MMR and the provincial government of Katanga, headed by Moïse Katumbi at the time, was not subject to any tender. Instead, the agreement gave MMR exclusive rights, on the understanding that the company would prevent the mineral trade from funding armed groups and maximise tax revenues for the province. In exchange, MMR had to build a hospital and a school in Kisengo, which it eventually did.
The contract also instructed MMR to collaborate with a miners’ cooperative, CDMC, which, according to Africa Intelligence, was founded by a brother of the mining minister. The minister, Martin Kabwelulu, did not reply to IRIN’s emails.
MMR has enforced this agreement with the help of the army, and latterly the police, as set out in its contract. Claude Iguma, a PhD researcher who has studied the security situation in Kisengo, counted 43 policemen in the village, most of them armed with assault rifles, and five control points at its exits. MMR pays the police on top of their government salaries, according to several IRIN interviews with informed sources and prior research, but the company denies this.
Despite the impressive security apparatus, minerals are still smuggled out of MMR’s concession.
There’s good reason for that. The prices offered by MMR are much lower than those offered on the black market.
Several traders told IRIN they could smuggle minerals out of the Kisengo mine and sell them for twice the price MMR offers. MMR has been buying coltan for $20-24 per kilo, whereas one trader told IRIN he sold ore from Kisengo in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a few months ago for more than $50 per kilo.
The price of coltan depends on its tantalum content, and Kisengo’s ore is known by traders to be of the highest quality.
According to confidential information obtained by IRIN, MMR has bought between 100 and 160 tonnes of coltan annually from Kisengo miners over the past few years. This could add up to anywhere between $3 million and $9 million in annual export sales, depending on production, grade, and exact price.
Purchase prices are set by a committee composed of MMR itself, formal representatives from the miners' cooperative, and government officials.
But the miners’ cooperative, CDMC, supposedly a separate entity, is indistinguishable from the company. Its director sits behind an empty desk in MMR’s building. Questioned by IRIN on this point, the company said: “All entities that work collaboratively with MMR on production of minerals spend time in MMR facilities." But MMR also pays the salaries of CDMC’s employees, according to two CDMC managers interviewed by IRIN.
As such, none of the members of the price-setting committee effectively represents the miners’ interests.
In May 2016, a delegation of miners met with MMR to request better prices, but the company refused.
Valentin and some of the others decided to strike, and a large crowd of miners ended up blocking access to the mine. Valentin said they harassed no one but simply demonstrated, saying, “No organisations owned by foreigners will be allowed to come and conduct its activities… until the price is increased.”
At the end of that day, MMR increased the price from $20 to $22 per kilo. When the police reportedly fired shots in the air, the miners dispersed and returned to town.
But a little later on, more than a dozen protesters, including Valentin, were arrested by the mining police, tied up in MMR’s compound for several hours, thrown into one of MMR’s cars, and taken to Kalemie (half a day’s drive away), where they were jailed overnight, according to several miners and independent eyewitnesses.
There, they were accused of being armed rebels and only released after the provincial governor, Richard Kitangala, intervened.
A local MMR representative said the car had been commandeered by the police and denied that the miners were held in its compound.
Contacted by email, MMR’s head office responded: “We know nothing of the specifics that are referred to here.” The head of the mining police responsible for the area said he was not authorised to speak with journalists and could not provide a spokesperson.
Similar protests against MMR’s monopoly have occurred routinely over the years. In 2011, UN investigators found that when miners protested the coltan price in another of MMR’s mines, the police and army were deployed. The report said: “Live rounds were fired, and two civilians were killed." But MMR told IRIN: “We doubt this is true, as we have never heard of such incident.”
By protesting, Valentin and his colleagues secured a couple of dollars more per kilo for their ore. But there is another way a miner can look to increase his revenue.
Illicit traders are nicknamed “owls” because they work at night, when the miners crawl out of their shafts. If owls are caught by the police, they lose all their goods and their capital.
In a dark room, one such trader spoke softly, anxious to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. He told IRIN the police had confiscated his minerals and then sold them on to MMR, without paying him a cent. Another said MMR buys “tonnes and tonnes… how can they come to confiscate the 20 or 30 kilos that I need to survive, and leave me empty-handed? Don’t you see this is not normal?”
Prior to MMR’s stranglehold, traders could buy and sell minerals freely. Many of them were wandering across eastern Congo, trading minerals worth a few hundred dollars, much like any other merchandise. They would sell them to larger buying houses that would then export them abroad.
According to the 2011 UN investigation, this all changed in Kisengo after MMR obtained its exclusive buying rights. Congolese soldiers began to “actively track down any infringing traders, jail them — sometimes for several days — and deliver the seized minerals” to MMR, its report says. Those who refused to sell their minerals to MMR were detained until they agreed. Since then, the mining police have taken over enforcement.
Ironically, the very same army that had enforced MMR’s conflict-free supply chain is the main culprit in the conflict minerals trade. According to IPIS, the Congolese army levies illegal taxes over a quarter of the miners in eastern Congo, more than any other armed group.
Most traders have quit Kisengo, but some remain, despite the risks, purchasing coltan smuggled out of the quarry, attracting the miners by adding a couple of extra dollars per kilo on top of MMR’s prices, and then looking to make a profit elsewhere.
Town hit hard
According to the most conservative estimates, more than one million people directly depend on artisanal miners in eastern Congo, with many more indirectly benefiting from their business.
A recent study by researchers at the United Nations University suggests that child mortality in villages located near mines in the region has more than doubled since Dodd-Frank was enacted.
In Kisengo, barber Joseph Akram leant close to a client, a razor blade in his hand, expertly shaving away the smallest hairs for a perfect cut. The afternoon heat was gathering under his tarp-covered salon. It was spotlessly clean and colourfully decorated with posters of various hairstyles. “Because we depend on the diggers, if they don’t find revenues, we also suffer,” he explained. “Everyone here depends on MMR,” said Akram. He recalled that in 2007, “coltan prices were around $50 per kilo, but now they are… $22. Imagine! Life has become hard.”
“Here, there’s no competition: there’s no company that can compete to increase prices. In economics, we say that if demand is higher, prices increase, and without demand, prices decrease.”
Greg Mthembu-Salter, a consultant and former member of the UN group of experts on Congo, sees MMR’s exclusive rights as leading to a “capitalist chain reaction” that means miners end up bearing most of the cost.
“How do you find a fair price in the absence of competitive buying and trade union negotiations?” he asked.
Matthysen, who conducted the mine survey for IPIS, said the approach means “you have clean minerals that satisfy demand [of global consumers], but not the development of local communities."
Rush to gold
Faced with the low coltan prices in Kisengo, many miners and traders have taken the sandy road leading northward. Meandering beautifully through seas of tall grass, after a few hours' drive, it leads to a gold quarry called Kamoko.
Gold has attracted miners to Kamoko since the 1990s. Like Kisengo, it used to be a tiny village, but today it is a town with bars, restaurants, a radio station, hotels, and tick-infested brothels. The military, the police, and a flood of government agencies have set up shop in Kamoko, each with their own rules and taxes.
Miners armed with picks and shovels have buried the grasslands under yellow soil, dug out of hundreds of pits. Standing at the quarry’s entrance, you can’t see to the other end. In the underground tunnels, crawling under 15 metres of mud, the air is suffocating, and the soggy earth often collapses, leading to injury and death.
A few hundred metres from the quarry, IRIN found Fiston Ulumbu battling the wind as it swept through the camp and the rain began to fall. To keep the raindrops away from his mattress, the lanky miner leant forward out of his hut and readjusted the blue tarps covering the frail, wooden structure. Even then, it was cold and damp inside.
Fiston used to work in MMR’s concession in Kisengo, but the price the company offered was too low, so he took the road to Kamoko. He told IRIN he was used to the itinerant lifestyle: “Everywhere, there are quarries. If there’s a chance, I need to go. If I hear today that there is much gold in Kolwesi, I need to do everything to get to Kolwesi.”
According to IPIS, the combination of conflict mineral regulations and changing prices and demand have seen many miners, like Fiston, shift from digging coltan and other minerals to gold since 2009, when it conducted its first survey.
Congo’s artisanal gold production is at least $437 million per year. But nearly all of it is illegal and therefore smuggled out of the country. One trader told IRIN he smuggled gold to Tanzania, while others sell it in Uganda or Burundi. According to the UN, most of Congo’s gold ends up in Dubai, where buyers don’t ask too many questions about its origins.
IPIS estimates that about 80 percent of all artisanal miners in eastern Congo now dig for gold. They usually work under the control and illegal taxation of armed groups, most commonly the army.
The activists seeking to solve Congo’s problems through “ethical” electronics consumption do not intend to make miners lives harder, but at Kisengo and other mines in the region the effects of Dodd-Frank section 1502 are hard to ignore.
The impacts of the conflict mineral laws on livelihoods “may have been unintended, but they were not unknown”, pointed out Ben Radley, a PhD researcher on the issue at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
The draft of Trump’s executive order justifies suspending section 1502 on the grounds of the “loss of livelihoods” faced by artisanal miners and the “compliance costs” to companies.
In section 1502’s absence, “all these people who trade conflict minerals… could come back,” said Delly Mawazosesete, a Great Lakes researcher based in the eastern Congolese city of Goma. “On an economic level, this will be good. But for human rights and prevention of armed conflicts and their consequences, this will be bad.”
But Laura Seay, a US academic who has been critical of the impact of 1502, believes any suspension will be largely symbolic. The spread of anti-conflict mineral laws regionally and internationally means big corporations that operate multinationally will remain bound by other legislation, she told IRIN.
Fiston has a university degree, but there are no jobs for people without the right connections. He’ll keep digging in the hope of buying a house one day. So far, he barely finds enough gold to survive day by day.
The supply chain of Congo’s industrial gold is already hermetically sealed, but artisanal activity could be targeted whenever the next phase of international efforts against conflict minerals begins.
A kilo of gold is more than 1,000 times more valuable than a kilo of coltan, making it a lot easier to smuggle and harder to trace. Conflict-free gold would require an even more secure supply chain, tightening the noose further on traders and miners alike.
What Fiston doesn’t know yet is that a company affiliated with MMR is coming to Kamoko. Like Congo’s other industrial gold mines, it will produce conflict-free gold in a tightly controlled environment, but it will require far fewer hands. When it starts operations, Fiston and all the other artisanal miners eking out a living from the earth here will have to move on again.
This is the first in a two-part IRIN series on the adverse effects of US conflict-free mineral legislation