What are minerals? | Where do I use these minerals? | Where do they come from and what is the impact of extracting them? | Resources

What are minerals?

Minerals are the raw materials used for many products we use every day. These minerals are mined all over the world, and they are called conflict minerals when they come from regions where there is violent conflict as a result of their mining.

The four main conflict minerals presently are known as the 3Ts (Tantalum, Tungsten and Tin) and gold. We will also be looking at diamonds in the context of conflict.

Where do I use these minerals?

You are most likely viewing this webpage from a computer, smartphone or tablet and there is a high chance that the electronic device you are using contains minerals that originate from central and east Africa.

Here you can find out how your electronics are connected to the ongoing conflicts in central and east Africa. The irony is, that the device you are using to access this information to learn and better inform yourself and others, is inadvertently perpetuating conflict.

To change this, we need to understand where the minerals originate from, the necessity of them for the worldwide electronics market and the impact of supply chain policies of major electronic companies, so that we as consumers can make more informed decisions about the products we buy.

Take the mobile phone, for example. When you think hard, you will find that you may now only know a handful of people who do not own one. As the use of mobile phones increases every day, the minerals needed to make them are in high demand.A diagram showing where each mineral is used in a mobile phone

Have a look at some of the minerals used in mobile phones as shown in the diagram:

  • Copper : acts as transistors in the circuit boards
  • Tantalum : in the phone’s circuit board, where it stores the electricity
  • Tungsten : in the components that helps mobile phones to vibrate
  • Tin : soldering in the circuit boards
  • Gold : used to coat wires in the circuit boards


Here is an opportunity to look at how we are connected to resources from central and eastern Africa. Click on the product you wish to learn more about:

Automotive parts | Lenses | Electronics | Power tools | Lighting | Medical devices | Aerospace engineering | Household appliances | Fitness equipment | Plastics  | Cans | Zip fasteners | PVC

Electronics | Jewellery | Medical equipment | Automotive parts | Aerospace engineering 

Jewellery | Electronics | Drilling and cutting | Spacecraft 

Where do they come from and what is the impact of extracting them?

Unfortunately, a large portion of these essential minerals are found in conflict regions, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In eastern DRC many mines and transport routes are controlled by armed groups who use the profits and bribes, derived from minerals, to purchase weapons and supplies and continue their conflict.

The minerals become metals as they are smelted by companies further down the supply chain. New markets such as China and India and high commodity prices have led to high demand for the minerals found in the DRC.

The impact of mineral extraction in central and eastern Africa:

  • Systemic conflict and war
  • The conditions in mining practice and the effects of these conditions on small-scale and artisanal miners such as the physical, economic and social insecurity they find themselves in
  • Human rights abuses; child abuse, rape and displacement
  • Tax avoidance by international companies
  • Distortion

Mining Practices

Mine workers in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo
There are an estimated two million people working as artisanal miners in the DRC. These miners have become highly migratory, adapting to shifts in product demand across the country. Their temporary settlement in communities can often have very negative social impacts including:

  • family breakup
  • an increase in prostitution
  • abuse of alcohol and drugs
  • competition for – and destruction of – the communities’ resources
  • distortion of local market prices of basic goods due to their relatively higher daily income earned.

A report from PACT DRC about economic development in the region describes how “women work in and around artisanal mines, most often as transporters and processors of raw material, as well as service providers to the mine such as commerce, catering and, frequently, prostitution. Women are rarely given equal pay, rights or representation. Artisanal mining and associated activities are also frequently carried out by children and youth. The DRC’s regulatory environment and capacity are weak, and existing laws such as the Mining Code are not enforced effectively. Local authorities and security forces tend to be paid sporadically, which leads to corruption and participation in the illegal mining.”

A large number of “rogue” mines in eastern DRC are controlled by armed groups. As well as the conditions already described in the mines, these armed groups use the profits from the mines to fund their arms supplies, enabling them to remain in control of the mines and the local economy. The groups and other middlemen place illegal ‘taxes’ on the miners, frequently trapping them in cycles of debt and poverty. Through a practice of enslavement, inhabitants are put to work extracting valuable resources for the warlords. The neglect of safety, or a reasonable working environment, makes the mines extremely dangerous. The gruelling work is a detriment to physical health. Children are often forced into working in these mines with the promise of a daily meal.

Hindering Development

One consequence of the exploitation of illegal minerals in the DRC is that the country is losing out on money that could be channeled towards much needed development for a country that sits bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.
Comparative value infographic 2 copy
It is estimated that the DRC lost out on between US$140 and US$225 million in illegal mineral trading in 2008 alone, although not all is lost through illegal trading to fund armed groups and corrupt governments. The DRC government also has an important role in governing the extractive sector yet has failed to do so thus far. A high level of corruption can explain this, with the DRC in the bottom 10% in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2012. FARDC (Congolese national army) soldiers are also given little to no renumeration, and a lack of decent quality life which could explain their active role in the illicit businesses.

Negative impact of the ‘conflict mineral’ label

International governments as well as NGOs are currently lobbying local governments such as that of the DR Congo to ensure that legal mining practices are being used. However, recent reports reveal that this international pressure, well intended as it may be, is starting to show a negative impact on the region.

Minerals from central and eastern Africa are now automatically labelled as ‘conflict minerals’. As much as this will contribute to increased awareness of the role of illegally exploited minerals in financing conflict and the need for companies to take responsibility, a negative implication is also emerging. The ‘conflict mineral’ label associated with the region “has led to interrupted demand for minerals from the Great Lakes, the closure of some businesses dealing with the purchase and export of minerals, the loss of employment and a reduction in income within the local economy, and ultimately threatens to negatively reinforce the crisis created by the various conflicts in the region if nothing is done to stem the trend of unintended consequences”.

To read about what is being done to reduce the negative impact of minerals on central and eastern Africa visit our initiatives page.


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