Increased demand for conflict minerals causes exploitation of miners in South America

Illegal mining in South American countries such as Columbia (pictured above) have increased to fulfill large companies’ necessity for gold and precious metals. Their conditions are often dangerous, abusive and harmful to the environment. (Knut-Erik Helle/wikimedia commons)

Though there has always been a healthy demand for gold and other precious metals, this demand has increased drastically over the course of the last two decades due to the advent of personal electronics. 

This growing market demand for consumer electronics, who use gold as a conductor in their processors, spawned an industry of illegal mining in mineral South America. Rebel and criminal organizations in countries like Colombia commandeer mines, place harsh sanctions on the behavior of local miners and sell the extracted gold to foundries and exporters to fund their own operations.

Corporations like Apple purchase this same gold from international suppliers to be used in iPhones and other such products, indirectly sponsoring this instability and abuse of human rights. 

Colombia has been known historically for large bastions of organized crime dealing primarily in narcotics as a means of funding operations. More recently, however, these cartels have made the switch to business in gold. 

In describing his episode for “The Weekly,” New York Times producer and journalist Brent McDonald said, “The growing demand for gold as a conductive metal used in phones and other electronic products has helped spawn a deadly illegal trade that’s harder to track than other black-market commodities like blood diamonds or drugs.” 

Illegal mines that are run by these cartels are riddled with extortion and abuse. These same mines are likewise known to pollute the Earth with harsh chemicals and contribute to the destruction of South American rainforests.

Pedro Ramirez, an illegal miner interviewed on an episode of “The Weekly” titled “Apple’s Gold,” said, “Anyone who doesn’t pay gets a chance of leaving voluntarily,” but, if extortion fees were not met and a miner refuses to be driven out, “… well, you get murdered and thrown in the river.” 

This misbehavior is not unfamiliar to Apple who, a decade ago, was found to be engaging in similar behavior in the Democratic Republic of Congo where there are also conflict minerals. In an article for Public Radio International, Kira Zalan recounts the results of an IPIS study, which said, “Non-state armed groups profit through various criminal activities, including illegal taxation and even pillaging,” when moving gold through the supply chain.

In response, the United States passed the Dodd Frank Act—a massive, 16-part bill that addressed a number of concerns raised by the financial crisis of 2007 such as investor protection, transparency on Wall Street and in a section of miscellanea, addressed conflict minerals. The bill would require companies to report to The Securities and Exchange Commission, information concerning the regions from which their minerals are sourced and required the U.S. government to address the connection between commercial products, illegal mining, armed groups and human rights violations by restricting exports from those regions.

Despite this bill being nearly ten years old, illegal mining is rampant in Columbia and continues to flourish. Cartels grow stronger and mortality rates rise. It is the responsibility of the U.S. to address this issue in South America as it has in Africa, to find a solution more responsible than abstinence. 

In an article for The Property and Environment Research Center, Dominic Parker criticizes the effectiveness of the Dodd Frank Act, stating that the law disrupted an unspoken agreement between citizens and cartel heads, worsening poverty and infant mortality by reducing mining families’ incomes. 

In order to address conflict minerals in South America, the U.S. must first address the inadequacies of prior legislation. Instead of placing their focus on corporations, which will always seek to expand and subvert regulation, future legislation should address the endemic political issues which allow organized crime and human rights abuses to persist.

Anthony Lyon is an English major sophomore who likes to ski.