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Are Intel's microprocessors really conflict-free?

A 'Fault Lines' investigation in Congo turns up fraud, smuggling in trade of minerals used in popular electronics

In “Conflicted: The Fight Over Congo’s Minerals,” Fault Lines asks if a law lobbied for by Western consumers and advocacy groups brought peace to miners in eastern Congo—or if it instead caused more problems for people in the region. The film airs on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 9 p.m. Eastern time/6 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


In January of last year, in front of thousands at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Brian Krzanich, the CEO of the world’s largest chip maker, Intel, announced that every microprocessor that the company made in 2014 (and henceforth) would be conflict-free.

"The minerals are important; our industry relies on them,” Krzanich said. “But it's not as critical as the lives of people mining."

The minerals he’s referring to—the so-called “3 Ts” (tantalum, tungsten and tin), as well as gold—are critical ingredients for the company’s semiconductor-based products, which end up in laptops, smartphones and other consumer electronics. Since the early 2000s, Western advocacy groups linked mining of those materials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—which has mineral deposits worth an estimated $24 trillion—to armed militias who threatened workers, taxed trade and committed atrocities against the men, women and children who worked at and lived near the mines.

Krzanich said that the company was tracking its raw materials from the mine to the smelter (where minerals are extracted from the rocks they’re found in) to its factories, ensuring they were free from influence of groups perpetrating violence. Intel announced in September of last year that it had set a goal of having its entire product line be conflict-free by 2016.

But a “Fault Lines” investigation reveals that the system designed to help Intel verify that its supply chain does not interact with the activity of armed groups is still a work in progress. Evidence of widespread fraud, smuggling and a lack of oversight actually casts doubt on Krzanich’s proclamation at CES.

“To say something is conflict-free, you’d have to have a presence at that mine 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the entire year to be able to say for sure that there’s no armed group presence—that armed groups are not taxing it, that minerals are not coming in from outside and being mixed,” said Dan Fahey, who served as a member of a United Nations investigative team in eastern Congo from 2013 to 2014. “It’s not happening.”

Cracks in the system

Intel’s motivation to investigate its supply chain came from a resolution dropped into the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Section 1502 of the law set out to create a measure of transparency, requiring publicly traded companies that made products using the 3 Ts and gold to report yearly on where their minerals were coming from.

The most expedient move by companies was to simply cease getting materials from a place like Congo, but Intel reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it’s still sourcing tantalum and tin there.

According to the International Organization for Migration office covering eastern Congo, only 10 percent of the mines in the entire country have been certified conflict-free. Without that certification, minerals cannot be legally exported out of Congo to the West.

But mines without that designation don’t necessarily shut down while they wait for certification.

Jean Ngerageze, the president of a mining cooperative in the remote village of Numbi, said that minerals from the surrounding area were making it to market before those mines were certified, thanks to traders from a place called Nyabibwe, six hours away.

This idea that consumers don't know and don't care about what's in their products is a myth.

Holly Dranginis

policy analyst, The Enough Project

“Traders from Nyabibwe came to take the minerals and go back to Nyabibwe, hiding them,” Ngerageze told “Fault Lines.” “So our minerals were marked as coming from Nyabibwe.”

Nyabibwe is home to Kalimbi, which was the first mine in eastern Congo to be certified conflict-free—and until recently was part of a pilot project run by several companies, including Intel, as proof-of-principle that minerals could be traced from the mine all the way to the consumer electronics they end up in.

Interestingly, records show Nyabibwe’s production was never on the same scale as Numbi’s, said Abbas Kayonga, who is the coordinator for the anti-fraud unit for the Ministry of Mines and Geology in the province of South Kivu in eastern Congo.

“In the paperwork, it's a lot—really too much for Nyabibwe,” he said, referring to the quantities coming from the area in recent years.

He added that over a period of seven months earlier this year, his agents intercepted 52 tons of illegal tin that was destined to be mixed in with certified minerals in Congo or smuggled over the border into Rwanda, where it would be tagged as conflict-free and exported for smelting.

Stopping at the smelter

In September 2014, an open letter penned by a group of 70 Congolese leaders and international experts asserted that four years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, many mining efforts in Congo had been forced to operate illegally because of the slowness with which the certification process was moving.

They also called into question the veracity of U.S. companies’ claims that they were producing conflict-free products.

“Multinational corporations such as Apple and Intel are auditing smelters to determine the conflict-free status of the minerals they source, and not the mines themselves,” they wrote. “As smelters are located outside of the DRC and audits are not always conducted by third parties, these processes raise further concerns over whether conflict-free certifications reflect production realities.”

Miners work at a tin mine near the town of Numbi that was certified conflict-free earlier this year.
Cassandra Herrman for Al Jazeera America

Intel sent a statement in response to questions about its supply chain from “Fault Lines.”

“While we acknowledge that no systems are perfect, our Intel conflict minerals team has traveled to hundreds of different smelters around the world," it read. "Intel staff conducted facility visits and worked directly with smelters and refiners to conduct a ‘reasonable country of origin inquiry’ to determine the sources of the tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold contained in our products. During such facility visits, Intel staff conducted due diligence and directly observed and examined documentation to draw reasonable conclusions on the country of origin of the minerals processed at the smelter or refiner.”

But if the fraud “Fault Lines” discovered is taking place upstream of the smelters, relying on them to trace minerals leaves Intel’s claim to having a conflict-free microprocessor open to attack.

Holly Dranginis, a policy analyst with the Enough Project, a nonprofit that seeks to end human rights atrocities in Africa and led the effort to include Section 1502 in the Dodd-Frank bill, contends that Intel provides the example for all other companies trying to pursue a conflict-free supply chain.

“I think it's just really important to stick to the idea that companies pursue better and better processes internally to investigate their own supply chains and to respond to consumers who are standing up and saying, ‘We want to see what you're doing, and we want to know what your due diligence practices are,’” Dranginis said. “This idea that consumers don't know and don't care about what's in their products is a myth.”

While Intel’s intentions seem to be in the right place, for the moment, it appears its 100 percent conflict-free-claim is more marketing spin than a guarantee to its consumers—or an indication that things have improved in Eastern Congo.

“In the end, it's the miners and the people who depend on mining for their livelihood who are most affected by this in eastern Congo,” said Dan Fahey, the UN investigator. “And there's not evidence really that those people have benefited during the last five or six years.”


Additional reporting by Nikhil Swaminathan

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