By Margot Mayoraz
What is the link between the computer I am typing on right now, violent conflict, and climate change? Well, we could sum it up in three words: natural resources extraction. To delve deeper into these connections, the Human Rights, Conflict and Peace Initiative set up a panel discussion as part of the Students’ Peace Week. Here is a brief summary of what we have learnt.
To begin with, Prof. Filipe Calvão – expert researcher on extractive economies – clarified that while extraction can be defined as any economic activity relying on resources that are not capital, the extraction of natural resources is key in the global production system we currently live in, and their overexploitation is often the cause of various problems. This is notably the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where cobalt mining activities represent a little-known, yet central knot to the world economy. Prof. Calvão also insists on the difference between industrial and artisanal mining: while the latter is often less destructive and more embedded in local economies, it is also less formal and thus more prone to imply child labor and modern slavery.
Mr. Vital Kamungu – manager of a capacity-building project from the Good Shepherd Foundation in the DRC – explained that while local communities certainly benefit from this activity as they have little other opportunities to make a living, their working conditions are overtly dangerous. To him, the disorganization of this extractive sector allows the Congolese state to profit from its benefits: any incentive to regulate the system is neutralized by the opportunistic character of the people responsible for the sector. Prof. Claudia Seymour – who spent a decade researching about violence in the DRC – traced back the roots of the current system to the colonial period, when the Congo was pretty much King Leopold’s private company. She further explained that structural violence is at stake in the DRC: its main root is poverty, which pushes people to work in mines in inhumane conditions and to use armed violence as the only way of surviving in this chaotic environment.
But hasn’t the DRC received billions of dollars of development aid over the past decades, notably after the conflicts the country has been enduring? As the situation has hardly improved, has the international community misunderstood the problem? Prof. Seymour immediately warned us from the temptation to simplify the problem: there is no international community, only various actors who all have their specific interests. She argued that international interventions often failed to address the structural causes of the issues, guilty of selective denial to distract attention from the main roots of the problem. Why? Because these directly threaten the global economy since the extraction of minerals such as cobalt is crucial to the production of essential elements of our daily lives, like phones and batteries. Moreover, Prof. Calvão reminded us that if the big companies are not satisfied with the regulations in place on their production sites, they tend to move to another country to keep their business going. There is thus no simple answer and no other alternative than engaging with the sector to find creative solutions. To bring up change, Prof. Seymour underlined the relevance of shifting our attention away from the DRC to rather engage with relevant actors in our home countries. Yet Vital reminded us how hard it is to improve the situation as long as the Congolese state is an accomplice and does not comply with its social and economic responsibilities towards its citizens, and keeps producing neat reports obscuring the ugly truth.
Looking ahead, the demand for minerals such as cobalt is likely to increase. In particular, trends such as the shift to renewable energies required by climate change, as well as the increased digitalization of societies, are driving this demand upwards. Yet, a change is essential to stop using blood-stained minerals in our products. How will these conflicting trends evolve? While Prof. Calvão underlined the possibility of technological progress that would decrease the importance of the minerals’ demand, Prof. Seymour appeared hopeful of a more radical system change. 2020 has shown us tables could turn surprisingly quickly: would this particular time represent an opportunity to seize to rethink the sacrifices imposed on people and environment for the sake of production and maximization of profits?
Margot Mayoraz is currently a member of the Human Rights, Conflict and Peace Initiative (HRCP). She co-organised and co-moderated with Jason Nemerovski a panel discussion about Natural Resources Extraction as part of the Students’ Peace Week on April 22nd, 2021.
The Students’ Peace Week is a thematic week of events that took place from April 19 to 23 organized by the Gender, Peace and Security Coalition, the Peacebuilding Initiative, the MENA Initiative, the Human Rights, Conflict and Peace Initiative, and GISA. Its aim is that of deepening students’ understanding of peace and approach it from different perspectives.
Photo by MONUSCO Photos, CC BY-SA 2.0
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