The movement to remove conflict minerals from campus
By Gena Mangiaratti
It’s hard to imagine how an iPod can be related to a war, but the materials used to make such technology are often from conflict areas.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, poor governing in the war-torn eastern region has allowed for armed military groups to seize control of mineral mines. The driving force behind control of these mines is to collect profits from four central minerals: tin, tungsten, tantalum—also called the 3Ts—and gold. Crucial for electronic devices such as cell phones and portable music players, gold and the 3Ts sourced from these mines are often referred to as “conflict minerals.”
After being extracted from the mines in eastern Congo, these minerals are shipped to other parts of the world, where they are used by electronics companies in their products and widely purchased. This inadvertently fuels the conflict and the human rights violations associated with it. As a result, anti-genocide activists and individuals are pushing for electronic companies to be transparent in where they obtain their minerals.
In December 2010, the non-profit anti-genocide organization the Enough Project conducted a study to rank 21 of the biggest electronics vendors in terms of their efforts to track and eliminate conflict minerals from their products. No companies were certified as “conflict-free” at the time the study was conducted.
The Ithaca College chapter of STAND, the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network, has joined national efforts toward transparency from vendors. Among the factors fueling the violence in eastern Congo is the effort to seize and maintain control of these profit-inducing mines.
While the concept of “conflict minerals” is only one of the causes of the violence, it is a factor that local efforts can influence. IC STAND is currently working to form a student coalition against conflict minerals, which is the first step in effecting change at the administrative level.
“This is the first time we’ve ever really approached the campus with a conflict that is directly related to the students and the president,” said Tina Orlandini, the vice president of publicities for IC STAND.
In July 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, requiring companies that report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit annual reports revealing the sources of the minerals they use—and if they came from the Congo, describing what efforts were made to ensure the minerals were conflict-free. Some companies must begin reporting as early as mid-2012 if products made in the 2011 fiscal year contained conflict minerals.
Companies that have been verified to be free of conflict minerals can label their products “DRC conflict free,” similar to labels on fair-trade coffee.
Following the passage of the Reform Act, the Enough Project released a “Conflict-Free Campus Initiative” to help college students working toward transparency from their campuses’ electronics vendors about where their minerals are sourced. The Enough Project suggests three options for initiating a conflict-free campus. The best option, according the Enough Project’s website, would be a change in the university’s procurement policy to make a statement in favor of conflict-free products. Because Ithaca College and other educational institutions have large contracts with electronics companies, this policy could encourage vendors to track their supply chains.
According to the December 2010 study by the Enough Project, Dell and Apple have been revealed to use conflict minerals in their products but are currently making efforts toward being conflict-free. Other companies, such as Nintendo and Panasonic, fall behind in their efforts.
Daniel Solomon, national advocacy coordinator of STAND, acknowledged that because no “conflict-free” products exist yet, it is not realistic to ask colleges to shun electronics companies that use conflict minerals.
“What [activists] are asking is that the university engages as constructive a relationship as possible to inquire about these companies’ use of resources coming from the DRC and their products, and to try to encourage them to adhere to the accountability and transparency standards that are set forward by both industry actors as well as U.S. federal government legislation,” said Solomon, a sophomore at Georgetown University.
The second option, the Enough Project website states, would be a shareholder resolution, in which a college would commit to voting for shares of electronic companies that have joined the conflict-free initiative. This option was adopted by Stanford University in spring 2010.
The third option would be a general support statement in favor of conflict-free minerals, which, while non-binding, could provide an incentive to companies to obtain the conflict-free label.
Once they have formed a student coalition, the members of IC STAND plan to build a faculty coalition before approaching the investment sector of the school. Then, they will approach the president of the college and finally, the board of trustees.
“The main reason we are pushing for this initiative is because the school has a dedication to sustainability, and I think this is an initiative that speaks to that idea,” Orlandini said. “Even though it’s not environmental sustainability, it’s humanitarian sustainability, so I don’t see why the campus wouldn’t support us in some facet of the initiative.”
Gena Mangiaratti is a sophomore journalism major who doesn’t like to think about genocide while listening to her iPod. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.