Image via WikipediaThe European Commission is expected to table plans by spring aimed at ensuring that European companies get better access to raw materials around the world, amid calls for greater traceability of imported minerals from African countries.
The communication, which was initially expected to be adopted on Wednesday (26 January) but has since been postponed, aims to ensure better access to raw materials on world markets for European companies.
It follows the 2008 raw materials initiative, which set out a strategy for the EU's policy response to global resource scarcity.
The plan also follows moves by China to restrict exports of rare earths, which are used in everything from wind turbines to mobile phones and hybrid cars.
The EU is dependent on imports of "high tech" metals such as cobalt, platinum, rare earths and titanium, which are essential for the production of cell phones, laptops or green technologies linked to renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Eyeing resources in Africa
Among the policy responses the EU is looking at are ways to diversify supplies by importing from African countries.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, is a major source of cobalt and tantalum, while Rwanda is a source of tantalum and South Africa harbours large reserves of platinum.
Minerals from eastern DRC have attracted international attention and have been labelled "conflict" or "blood minerals", as the mining resources there are often found to be financing several armed groups.
These groups are reportedly waging bloody wars and committing atrocities like mass rape to intimidate and subdue local populations in order to secure control of mines, trading routes, and other strategic areas.
European Commission spokespeople told EurActiv that the issue of transparency in the extractive industry will be reflected in the EU's new communication on raw materials, which was originally due to to be published tomorrow but has since been postponed.
However, Commission representatives also said that the situation in the mining sector in some African countries was "complex" and full traces of imports would be difficult to carry out in practice.
"Mineral exploitation in conflict areas concerns hundreds of sites, not all of which are registered, and is often carried out informally by 'artisanal' miners who are not necessarily controlled by illegal armed groups. Therefore, the number of stakeholders involved is considerable and may rapidly change following conflict," the EU executive's spokespeople added.
"Often, the authorities are also implicated in the production and trade of minerals, rendering the border between legal and illegal activities rather opaque. Fully tracing minerals back to their origin can be extremely complex and might raise a number of legal challenges, including regarding international trade issues," the Commission officials said.
Lawmakers urge EU to follow US example
In December 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the bloc to create an EU law to ensure that imported minerals are traceable as a tool to combat illegal exploitation of conflict minerals in African countries.
It also urged the EU and the African Union (AU) to cooperate on sustainable exploitation of raw materials and transparency of mining contracts.
The lawmakers' call came in the wake of a US law on Congo "conflict minerals" – the Dodd-Frank Act – which requires oil, gas and mining companies listed on Wall Street to publicly disclose their income and tax payments.
The US bill, adopted in July 2010, also requires companies to certify whether their products contain minerals from rebel-controlled mines in Congo.
The fight against the illegal exploitation of "blood minerals" in Africa was among the dominant topics at the ACP-EU Assembly in Kinshasa in December 2010.
Addressing the assembly, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht stressed that "the EU, as the world's largest importer of raw materials, should not hesitate to live up to its own responsibilities in this, including those of our own companies".
According to De Gucht, the European Commission is considering the issue of transparency in the extractive industries within a wider context of reforming EU financial regulation. Late last year, EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier conducted a public consultation to gather stakeholders' views on financial reporting by multinational companies.
'Blood in the mobile'
The Commission raw materials plan comes amid calls for greater transparency in the mining sector.
'Blood in the mobile', a documentary by Denmark's Frank Poulsen, aims to reveal the connection between cell phones and the civil war in Congo. The documentary was supported by the EU's Media programme and was first screened in Denmark on 1 September 2010.
It demonstrates how the bulk of minerals used to produce mobile phones comes from mines in eastern Congo and suggests that manufacturers such as Nokia indirectly support civil war by buying so-called "conflict minerals".
According to the documentary, no global phone company can say with certainty that their suppliers are not buying conflict minerals from Congo, because companies do not currently have a system to trace, audit and certify where their materials come from.
Nokia stresses that even though it does not source or buy metals directly, it is very concerned about the potential link between mining and the conflict in DRC. For this reason Nokia has been working for years to ensure that metals from conflict areas do not enter its supply chain.
However, Nokia's corporate relations and responsibility chief, Esko Aho, told Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat that controlling imports is difficult due to the multiple layers of suppliers.
The GSM association (GSMA), which represents the interests of the worldwide mobile communications industry, claims that the mobile phone industry is already taking steps to rid supply chains of conflict minerals coming from illegal mining operations in Congo.
This is being led by the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI), which brings together leading ICT companies.