Tag Archives: Consumer Activism

Publicizing Complexity: Methods of Communicating a Multifaceted Conflict

A cause as complex as conflict minerals in the Congo requires many types of action, from both activists and governments, in order to create stability and peace. Institutions and individuals alike are being faced with the challenge of how to best communicate such a multifaceted matter.

In an era in which there are seemingly unlimited resources available on the Internet, it is easy to become overwhelmed by such an influx of stimuli. It is easy to feel that no matter how much you read there is always more information available. Therefore, it is important for those individuals who publish articles, photos, or videos on the web to present a clear and concise message that is all the while comprehensive and detailed.

This need for balance is one that environmental and human rights activists face everyday. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged?

This question is one worth exploring, for the effectiveness of an advertising or marketing campaign can determine whether that cause gains advocates or creates critics instead. The Los Angeles-based human rights organization Jewish World Watch has a unique approach that is effectively parceled into three different areas: education, advocacy, and refugee relief. Their Activism Certification and Training (ACT) program for high school students helps develop activism on high school campuses by focusing on these areas one at a time. By doing so, students understand the importance of each distinct area, as well as the important chronology of these three components; you cannot advocate for a cause without being educated on the matter first, and you cannot raise funds for refugees—or for any others in need—without first advocating for why someone ought to support the cause.

This three-pronged approach, however, can get lost when trying to communicate with the general public outside of a formal program like the ACT program. Thus we return to the above question: how can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention and keep him or her engaged?

Richard Downie, Deputy Director and Fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. proposed in an interview that the best approach is to “do your best to come out with [a] clear, concise balance…having maximum impact while also protecting the truth of what is actually happening and making sure you are not misleading people.” CSIS a non-profit organization that “provides strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions to decision makers in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society.”

A "mashup" of images an individual made "after reading about the Conflict Minerals used by Nokia, Apple, Intel and many others. Which feeds the current conflict in the Congo and makes use of gang rape as a weapon in this conflict." Photo and Caption Courtesy of Daniel Crompton / Flickr Creative Commons

While Downie’s approach appears to be ideal, unfortunately it is often not utilized. For example, one tactic that counters this evenhanded and comprehensive approach is to use extremes to catch attentions. The photo to the right, for example, was created by an individual on Flickr—“almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world.” This creation combines a violent image of a rape surrounded by the Nokia logo and slogan, thereby seeking to directly connect Nokia’s purchase of conflict minerals to the rapes occurring in the Congo. The use of such a violent image produces a strong and direct message: Nokia products cause rape. As discussed in previous blog posts, such a message is certainly an exaggeration of the truth. Downie commented on polarizing advertising that uses this message saying, “Making a direct link between making phone calls on your mobile phone and impacting the conflict is a gross oversimplification.”

Because the image above portrays such a one-sided point of view, if that is the first exposure a viewer has to the topic of conflict minerals in the DRC, that individual will likely form an immediate opinion. This is unfortunate because it is misleading and does not convey the full picture. This photo does not address the fact that Nokia has taken a certain degree of initiative, as early as 2001, to try and prevent their funds from landing in the hands of ruthless militiamen in eastern Congo. It is often true that people or organizations have particular agendas they are trying accomplish. It ought to be recognized, however, that in the case of human rights campaigns, it is much more effective to keep each party involved—even the industry or entities that need improvement—so that each one can work effectively together to find a solution.

The Enough Project takes a less dramatic approach in its media. Even though the organization has also taken the approach of victimizing electronics companies, Enough Project also proposes tangible methods to try and remedy this situation. One way in which it does so is through the video below called, “I’m a Mac … and I’ve Got a Dirty Secret”—which imitates the style of the Mac commercials that sought to prove their computers were more user friendly and entertainment-focused than PCs. The video not only points out what it believes is the harmful actions committed by electronics companies that purchase minerals from conflict mines, it also asks consumers to take action by demanding electronics companies clean up their mineral supply chains.

Joel Pruce, Lecturer in International Human Rights at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver, commented in an interview on this type of approach used in the above Enough Project video. He explains that “the strategy is to [leverage] power of average citizens when it comes to buying power…” of electronics.  He acknowledges the effectiveness of such advertising; it first captures the viewer’s attention first because of the human rights abuses it describes and then because it provides tangible action steps for consumers to take.

A New York Times audio slideshow called “A Scramble for Tin in Congo,” seen here, contains images captured by Johan Spanner and narration by Lydia Polgreen. Its approach is to be very thorough in communicating what is involved locally in Congo in the conflict minerals trade; rather than incorporate an advocacy message, it focuses on educating by providing raw facts. It documents the full process of first reaching the mines from main roads, then extracting the minerals, and finally exporting them. It does not provide the viewer or electronics consumer with concrete actions to take as a result of this provided information. However, it seeks to honestly portray the situation on the ground in the Congo. While—like in any form of communication—there could certainly be some distortion of truth, the photo evidence provided seems to bring the audio slideshow greater legitimacy.

One step beyond this video in the direction of full disclosure of the conflict is an investigative report by CBS’s 60 Minutes, seen here. It provides historical analysis, documents activism of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Enough Project, contains firsthand interview evidence, and even goes so far as to expose the Congolese government’s involvement in actually fueling the violence. While this video serves as an educational tool and does not suggest a specific course of action for the consumer, it does convey that the above two organizations are acting and involved in the cause. Therefore, if inspired to take action after watching this report, viewers and consumers could certainly become involved with one of these two organizations.

Even as seen in the few media examples provided above, there is a wide range of methods for exposing environmental and human exploitation. Advertising and communication tactics can be polarizing, can call people to action, or can be purely educational. While in depth, historical documentation is preferred for the sake of accuracy, advocacy groups and media outlets still face the challenge of how to capture attentions quickly—since there is not often the opportunity to produce a thirteen-minutes video to fully explain a conflict, as does the 60 Minutes video—without doing so in an entirely shocking or polarizing manner. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged? Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that one source might not—and so often does not—portray an entirely evenhanded and comprehensive view of the conflict minerals conflict. It is important for each person to carry out his or her own due diligence; read or view multiple sources in order to determine the truth of the matter, as well as what tangible actions can truly make a positive impact on the cause at hand.

Deciphering Congo’s Government Intentions

The Congolese government acknowledges the violence in the eastern region of the country. However, its response does not necessarily promise long-term commitment.

Groupe l’Avenir, a newspaper based in the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, published an article on October 25, 2011 called “Présentation du Mémorandum économique pays : L’importance de la gouvernance dans la gestion des ressources naturelles de la Rd Congo,” written by JMNK. This title translates to, “Presentation of the country’s economic Memorandum: The importance of governance in managing natural resources in the DRC.”

The title of the article alone reveals that the Congolese government is cognizant of its wealth of natural resources, as well as the need to actively control its exploitation of such resources. Eustache Ouayoro, Director of Operations of the World Bank and World Bank Country Director of the DRC states in the article, as translated from French,  “The mining sector occupies the news, and increased governance in the sector will help fill top newspapers.” He then goes on to say that the World Bank is planning to support the Congolese Ministry of Tourism, Environment, and Nature Conservation with its website, as well as with the publication of all signed contracts in this sector.

A statement such as this one from Ouayoro portrays Congolese efforts as addressing the protection of natural resources as a public relations matter—rather than as an environmental or human rights concern. In the following paragraph of the article, a Congolese citizen expresses the desire for more meaningful and direct action from within Congo saying, as translated from French, “From the artisanal mining exploitation… alternative activities need to be sought, even if…it is difficult for mining companies like Gécamines…” While some government officials seem to be occupied with public relations perceptions, Congolese citizens remain concerned with the status quo and are demanding change they hope the government can help bring to fruition.

"Congolese government agency for the control of minerals" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enough Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Christopher Bayer, PhD student at Tulane University, cautioned in an interview that consumers must remember: in the midst of this environmental exploitation of minerals, “lives are at stake.” This is not a topic to be taken lightly, but rather, consumers must intently observe the actions of the Congolese government and the extent to which they take action in this matter. Bayer emphasizes that the direction of this issue “depends so much on the Congolese government.” They are a key player in determining the outcome of the conflict mineral humanitarian crisis and have the potential to diminish this violent conflict.

Another article regarding the Congolese government’s involvement in the topic of conflict minerals was published on October 20, 2011 by Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based organization whose “international campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade.”  The article is called “Congo government requires domestic minerals sector to source responsibly” and reports that the Congolese government has recently decided “to compel mining and mineral trading companies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to carry out checks on their supply chains, in line with international standards, to ensure their trade is not financing the warring parties in the east of the country.” Contrary to Ouayoro’s statement in the Groupe l’Avenir article, this statement conveys that the Congolese government is indeed taking initiative to at least monitor the humanitarian implications of the mining sector.

The article contains a footnote to a document published by the Congolese Ministry of Mines on September 6, 2011 that references this governmental initiative. The document is a governmental directive that speaks, as translated from French, about the necessary “Due Diligence to promote responsible supply chains in the Congolese mining sector…”

"Arriving at the ministry of mining" Photo and Caption Courtesy of FairPhone / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, there appears to be conflicting information regarding Congolese governmental action and its desire to quell the conflict in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where the conflict mines are concentrated. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and President of Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles based organization that seeks “to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world,” stated in an e-mail that an explanation for this inconsistency “is that in the last few months the incumbent government has pandered to the Kivus for votes, inasmuch as the national elections are happening within the next couple of weeks.” Kamenir-Reznik, who just returned from the Congo in September, continued, “So, if it appears that there has been progress, I suspect it is elusive, temporary and insincere.  It was recently confirmed that still 1100 women a day are raped in Eastern Congo. So, I do not really see that there has been any meaningful, significant governmental intervention of late.”

It is important for the consumer to be aware of Congolese governmental actions, as well as the reality of its motives and whether or not a long-term outcome is possible. As consumers gather more information regarding the conflict minerals trade, it is crucial to understand what is actually taking place on the ground in the DRC versus what selective information is reaching the American public. Thus, it is important to evaluate many different sources, including primary newspaper sources and international organization reports, as well as accounts from experts that have actually visited the Congo and witnessed its injustices firsthand.

Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.

Finding a Middle Ground: the UN and Dodd-Frank

The UN Group of Experts on the DRC proposes a middle ground approach to both address the side effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and to allow its enforcement. Consumers can still take action, even as large and systematic change is necessary.

Though the Dodd-Frank Act has already been passed, the debate regarding its impact on the Congo continues. Thus, it is necessary to revisit the differing views to determine the appropriate path forward. Two weeks ago I delved into these varying perspectives, but I would like to return to them with a specific letter in mind dated October 21, 2011. It is written by Fred Robarts, Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) addressed to Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary L. Schapiro.

Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, Photo Courtesy of Sarah Mamula / Flickr Creative Commons

The letter predates an upcoming report from the Group of Experts that will be translated into the official United Nations (UN) languages, discussed by the Security Council, and then released by the end of November. The UN contacts listed on the letter declined to comment on it before the report was published. The timing of the letter—purposely preceding the full report—is of particular importance given the fact that the SEC will soon finalize regulations coming from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Group of Experts seeks to influence these regulations; they want to ensure the SEC has as positive an impact on the Congo as possible.

The group’s conclusions come from a year’s worth of observations and investigations regarding “the activities of armed groups in the DRC and their sources of funding. The group has also evaluated the impact of due diligence guidelines for individuals and entities purchasing, processing and consuming minerals from the DRC…” Such due diligence guidelines refer to the investigation of a company’s involvement in a particular area of human rights concern.

The content of the letter represents a union of various views. It includes ideas aligning with both those who support the Dodd-Frank Act—demanding businesses stop purchasing minerals from conflict mines—and those who claim a diversification of approaches, especially politically, is necessary. The letter fully acknowledges the “important challenges regarding Dodd Frank” and the perspectives of those who oppose the act. Such “challenges” include the de facto boycott of Congolese minerals that the act has caused. Such an outcome occurred because smelters and electronics companies have, for now, stopped purchasing minerals from Congo—where the conflict mines are concentrated—since formal mine evaluation systems do yet not exist. Companies are compelled to end business with these conflict mines because Dodd-Frank demands they no longer conduct business with these mines. Thus, they have decided to pull out of the Congo altogether until these systems are in place and they know for certain where their minerals come from. As a result of this boycott, the letter speaks of the “increased economic hardship” faced in the Congo as a result of the Dodd-Frank legislation and the sudden lack of funds flowing into the conflict mines.

With this acknowledgment of Congolese adversity, however, the letter goes on to state that terminating or abating Section 1502 it is not the correct path. It advises the SEC to adopt the approach of mitigation, as well as to continue enforcing 1502. Rather than abandon conflict mines altogether, the smelters would reduce the degree to which they buy from such mines, and in the mean time, legitimate mine tagging and tracing processes would be established. The Group of Experts believes this mitigation tactic will reduce the impact of the de facto embargo. The letter sites the success of supply chain tagging already taking place in Katanga, Congo and Rwanda as evidence for possible success of tagging in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where conflict mines are concentrated.

"Human Right Council - Special Session on DR Congo Sébastien Mutomb Mujing Representative Permanent of Democratic Republic of Congo ( Concerned country ) addresses during the Special Session on the "Situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo." Photo and Caption Courtesy of UN / Jean-Marc Ferre / Flickr Creative Commons

This approach seeks to find a middle ground. However, it ought not be viewed as a cop-out. Such a strategy tries to establish a delicate balance between maintaining economic stability in the Kivu Region, while also trying to terminate human rights abuses by militiamen.

Even with such an approach, the Dodd-Frank Act still faces extensive blame for causing economic ruin for Congolese in the Kivu Region. David Aronson, whose New York Times article I discussed two weeks ago, as well as Joseph Paul Martin, Director of Human Rights Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, constitute part of a group of scholars and journalists who have presented such blame. Martin stated in an e-mail, “The [Dodd-Frank Act] will have little impact on the current mineral and human exploitation in the DRC, a system which was established 140 years ago and has been reinforced and expanded over the years since.” Laura E. Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College, also looks down upon the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act: “In the mines, you can actually pay for things with coltan, so the economy is not entirely a cash economy, but that is all shut down now.”

Contrary to such points of view, the letter from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC goes on to applaud the Dodd-Frank Act for the awareness campaign it has started and that it has forced electronics companies to take responsibility for their impact on human lives. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, there was no legal obligation for companies to respond to the outcome of their Congolese mineral purchases.

The letter concludes by addressing the political changes that, along with these international business efforts, would lessen the occurrence of human rights abuses. It states, “We must keep up the pressure on the DRC authorities to prosecute and punish [the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] criminal networks involved in the minerals trade.”

The letter acknowledges the complexity of the conflict and that the solution will not be a simple process. Thus, it suggests a multipart approach to address the issue: both political and economic efforts must be simultaneously present to end violations of human rights—that occurred as a result of environmental exploitation—while also maintaining economic livelihoods.

This multi-solution system is directly relevant to consumer involvement. In addition to pressuring electronics companies to establish mine evaluation systems and to decrease purchases from conflict mines, consumers must also encourage U.S. legislative leaders to support Congolese government involvement.

Small Bites, Big Goals

America’s first annual Food Day sparks a conversation to fuel a movement

On Monday, sustainable food was celebrated in over 2,000 events in 50 states, produced by grassroots organizers as part of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s first annual Food Day.

Food Day was an idea launched in April of 2011, when health, hunger, and sustainable agriculture groups came together to create a campaign to change how Americans eat and think. Modeled after Earth Day, Food Day set out to open dialogue and awareness, promoting healthy foods, supporting sustainable farms, challenging agribusiness subsidies, expanding access to food, and reforming factory farms to protect animals and the environment.

Michael F Jacobson, the executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, has expectations that this awareness will translate to action, saying “We want to solve the problems to America’s food system,” and then describing the challenges to face: “Diet-related diseases are contributing to several hundred thousand deaths a year, kids are bombarded with junk-food advertising, millions of people are on the brink of hunger, food is grown in a way that uses enormous amounts of energy and degrades the environment, farm policies shower large farmers with billions of dollars and give little support to sustainable agriculture, workers on farms and in slaughterhouses and packinghouses are often treated miserably.”

But Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Comittee defined the event more timidly than its organizers, avoiding explicitly defining the American foodsystem’s problems or providing specific plans for action when he said in a press release, “Food Day is designed to further knowledge, understanding, and dialogue about critical topics in food, agriculture, and nutrition—spanning the food chain from farm families to family tables”.

Food Day was launched to start a dialogue across the country about these issues, but has more political aims. As participants convened in farmers’ markets, schools, grocery stores, fairs, and homes, they were encouraged to send their congress representatives a message soliciting their support of the Eat Real Agenda. The message lays out values of human health, equal and wider access to fresh produce, supporting farm laborers, termination of wasteful farm subsidies, and fair treatment of humans, earth, and animals. But, like Harkin and Jacobson, still provides no concrete steps– no bills or policy proposals– to make these changes happen in government.
Food Day Events Across the Country, courtesy of Flickr

The spread of information and awareness must eventually be channeled into action if it is to meaningfully, structurally change American food. As Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest explains, “Government policies and consumer decisions are both extremely important.  Consumers can choose healthier foods produced in a sustainable way, but it’s hard.  We need government policies to improve the situation for everyone.”

Where will Food Day be next year, on its first birthday? Time will tell if the continued awareness, dialogue, and spread of information will turn into action. So far, as Michael Pollan points out , writing in The Nation, that there is a “marked split between the movement’s gains in the soft power of cultural influence and its comparative weakness in conventional political terms”. He emphasizes that, with patience and persistence, cultural influence does evolve into policy and power. Food activism and awareness is making important grassroots advances: making school gardens, urban farming ventures, and local policy initiatives, but Food Day has a long battle ahead.

This is not to say it won’t be done. Earth Day started as a grassroots conversation, and ultimately contributed to the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Administration. Food Day was an exciting beginning; and its celebration each year will remind eaters to keep talking about, keep chewing on, sustainable food, until enough Americans come to the table inspired to make real change.

Campaigning for Conflict-Free College Campuses

College students across the U.S. are taking a stance and asking their administrations to work toward building a conflict-free institution. Whether they face roadblocks or successes, students are continuing with their efforts to create the most profound change possible.

Large, international humanitarian and environmental crises can often be paralyzing. Upon reading about such a conflict, it can be easy to feel disconnected from a far-flung location ridden by chaos. Where to begin; what stance to take; who to communicate with on the matter. These can all be difficult issues to face. One tactic is to turn to a community you already feel a part of—a workplace, organization, religious institution, school, or family—to discuss the matter and decide on an educated course of action. An example of such communal action has begun to take root at college campuses across the United States and in parts of Canada.

Sixty-two American and Canadian colleges have already come out in support of conscious consumption of electronics. Conscious consumption refers to purchasing electronics from companies that do not buy products containing Congolese minerals from conflict mines. As campuses take action on this matter, support generally comes in one of three forms: a procurement policy, a shareholder resolution, or a statement of general support.

A procurement policy is the strongest level of commitment a university or college can take. This involves the passage of a resolution that states the institution will favor purchasing electronics that come from companies that do not purchase conflict minerals. A shareholder resolution would require the university to vote their shares in favor of any resolution—regarding conflict-minerals in the DRC—that arises at companies they hold stock in. The third option, a statement of general support, expresses the university’s support of conscious consumption and conflict-free electronics in general. Each of these three efforts also acts as an awareness tactic as well.

These three options all pressure electronics companies, whether directly or indirectly, to clean up their mineral supply chains and to only use conflict-free minerals in their products. That said, each of these commitments does hold some noncommittal component. The language of procurement policies remains somewhat vague, allowing universities to express their “intent” to purchase conflict-free products. The shareholder resolution is a somewhat indirect piece of action; it deflects the need to actually purchase conflict-free electronics on campus. A statement of general support, of course, is only committing to releasing a public statement and falls short of taking any action beyond that.

At the same time, each of these steps does build awareness, seek to decrease the purchasing of conflict-ridden electronics, and pressures electronics companies by showing a growing demand for conflict-free products. Students are seeing the publicity and impact of these efforts and are now taking it upon themselves to demand more if universities do not self-impose stricter conflict mineral strategies.

Alexandra Hellmuth, Student and Youth Coordinator for Enough Project’s Congo Campaign, works with college and high school students to develop conflict-free campaigns on their campuses. The Enough Project is a non-profit organization “dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity, and preventing them from occurring in the future.” Hellmuth expressed in an interview that she believes the most influential way students can become involved in the cause of conflict minerals in the DRC is through the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI).

As stated on the Enough Project’s Congo campaign website, CFCI is a “national campaign to develop consumer advocacy for conflict-free electronics.” She clarified that the extent of these efforts never seeks to achieve Congolese divestment, but rather asks electronics companies to evaluate the legitimacy of mines. Hellmuth explains, “A main part of our campaign is that we don’t want companies to pull out of the Congo.” This would produce further chaos and economic distress in the DRC, which would work against the objectives of this campaign.

Stanford University’s chapter of STAND, “the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network” represents one of the leading college campus forces taking on the conflict-free campaign. Through Stanford STAND’s efforts working with administrators and Board of Trustee members, Stanford University became the first university in the world to alter its investment guidelines to help diminish its funding of the conflict minerals trade in the DRC. Through the club’s efforts, they achieved the passage of a proxy voting agreement, which is the same concept as a shareholder resolution, described above, except for that it does not take initiative to file these resolutions. Stanford STAND’s website describes the policy the university adopted: “The guideline states that the University will: ‘…vote in favor of well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives.’” Even given this success, though, Stanford student and campus STAND co-president, Clementine Stip, stated in an interview that just because they have achieved this accomplishment does not mean they will back away from this issue; she insisted they must continue to perfect their rhetoric and stance as they now act as a role model for other campuses.

Students at Duke University provide another example of meaningful campus activism. Stefani Jones, Duke sophomore and student senator for athletics, services, and the environment, teamed up with a group of friends to spearhead these campus efforts. While interning for the Enough Project this past summer, Jones decided to bring the CFCI to her campus. In order to do so, she started a coalition of students that is now part of the Duke Partnership for Service, which acts as an “umbrella organization for student-led service organizations at Duke.” Jones explained the importance of establishing this coalition since there is not a STAND chapter at Duke. Her goal was to gain as much student support as possible: “We have been reaching out to different student groups… like human rights and ethics to…investment clubs to our environmental alliance.” Her goal was “to try meeting…all the parts of campus that have either a stake or an interest in stopping the conflict in Congo.”

Jones’ campus-wide support was reflected in the organization of the Eureka Symposium, run through Duke Partnership for Service, which attracted over 120 students. The symposium, which included a presentation by the Enough Project, sought to work with students to teach and develop effective mechanisms for social change.

Students gather at Duke University for the Eureka Symposium | Photo Courtesy of Stefani Jones

Despite the original strength of efforts at Duke—and the original enthusiasm of the administration—Duke advocacy did run into a roadblock. Once administrators discovered that many of their corporate sponsors were electronics companies, they feared jeopardizing their relationship with such companies and backed down from their position of support.

Jones shared her perspective on this setback and the importance of remedying the situation in the DRC, “These corporate interests aren’t as important as the fact of how severe this conflict is. We’ve had a hard time convincing administrators that it is something worth viewing as a serious issue.”

Jones ensured, however, that as she continues to work with fellow students to develop a procurement strategy for Duke, and to establish a dialogue with Board of Trustee members, that she would not stand down to the administration: “we’re not really going to take no for an answer.”

Each of the three campus action options work toward a solution to hold electronics companies responsible for their mineral sources. As discussed last week, this type of activism is just one component of the necessary efforts to address human rights violations being carried out by violent Congolese mine owners who exploit the environment. What is clear is that campus activism is taking root all across the United States and that students are tenacious in their efforts; they are not backing down, and they are fighting for a cause they deeply believe in.

Dodd-Frank Hits the Congo

Though Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act seeks to create a more globally responsible corporate America, there is now evidence of negative consequences from this legislation. What is the next step for consumers when activists and economists take opposing sides?

Last week I discussed the various steps the United States government, both national and local, had taken to prevent American companies from purchasing conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While such government action appears to be a positive step forward, many journalists and economists are taking a stance against efforts like the Dodd-Frank Act. They are focusing on the fact that, as a result of this Act, smelters have begun to embargo Congolese minerals in order to be absolutely certain they do not purchase raw materials from conflict mines. Because these smelters currently have no way of evaluating which mines are conflict-free, they have stopped purchasing Congolese minerals altogether. They want to ensure they respond to the demands of electronics companies regarding social responsibility. After all, electronics companies are the ones purchasing mass quantities of minerals from smelters.

These electronics companies have acted largely as a result of consumer and activist demands, asking they solely buy minerals that have come from conflict-free mines in the DRC. In turn, smelters’ decision to purchase minerals from other countries—such as Canada, which they are certain has conflict-free mines—has caused economic hardship for many Congolese citizens who depend on mining to sustain their livelihoods. This unfortunate outcome, however, cannot simply be blamed on human rights activists. In overall advocacy and consumer education efforts, they have not only pressured the government to pass legislation such as Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act; activist messages have also—for years—advocated for coupling this legislation with on-the-ground aid in Congo.

"President Obama Signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act President Barack Obama delivers remarks and signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, July 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Nancy Pelosi / Flickr Creative Commons

David Aronson, a journalist and blogger focused on Central Africa, wrote an article for the New York Times called “How Congress Devastated Congo.” Aronson openly criticizes the Dodd-Frank Act in his article and describes the detrimental economic effects it has had on local Congolese—many of who depend on the activity of the minerals trade for their income. In an interview, Aronson explained the premature nature of the Act stating, “The problem with Dodd-Frank is entirely that [the U.S. government] put the restrictions in place before the mechanisms [to identify legitimate mines] were ready.” He explained the proper course of action would have been for the government to have spent “another extra couple of years to…certify the mines and the minerals as being clean” before enacting legislation such as Section 1502. With regard to human rights organizations, Aronson criticizes them for advocating for what he thinks is a faulty solution. He believes such “groups should have focused their advocacy on…clean[ing] up the evaluation system before restricting trade.”

Mine certification tags: As smelters leave the DRC, other efforts seek to establish legitimate mine evaluations Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of a Los Angeles based non-profit, Jewish World Watch (JWW), that seeks to combat instances of genocide and mass atrocities, commented in an e-mail regarding the perspective of individuals aligned with Aronson’s beliefs. Haviv clarifies, “The push for conflict minerals legislation always included a push for alternative livelihoods programs in the short term—in fact, Dodd-Frank also required the State Department to put a plan in place to support the development of a conflict-free supply chain politically and economically on the ground in Congo.” Thus, it is evident activist groups were fully aware of the economic implications of this restrictive mineral purchasing legislation, as well as what actions would remedy the negative side effect.

Mineral certification paperwork: An evaluation process that must be well established in order to bring smelters back to the DRC Photo Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enoughproject.org / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, as a consumer, one may be asking which side to take and whether or not to continue pressuring electronics companies to be responsible for their supply chains. It appears a conscious conglomeration of both sides is necessary. Just because the U.S. government has responded to longstanding activist pressure does not mean the problem is solved. At the same time, simply because certain negative results have come from the Dodd-Frank Act does not mean, in the long-term, it will be solely harmful. In fact, because of these negative repercussions in the Congo, consumers now face the need to advocate even more strongly for “alternative livelihoods programs in the short term,” as Haviv describes. This is a complex matter with a complex solution; however, activists—and economists—can still create definitive change through targeted advocacy for a practical solution. It is in smelters’ best interest to eventually return to the DRC to increase their access to mineral supplies, thus driving down prices; however, it is not realistic to depend on them to establish their own mine evaluation systems based on their currently uninvolved response to the matter.

Daniel Hamermesh, Professor of Economics at The University of Texas at Austin, suggests Americans ought to “do something to mitigate the impact of our well-intentioned legislation on small producers in the Congo.” Such action is possible, starting from the consumer level. Consumers can write to government representatives expressing that the current outcome of the Dodd-Frank Act is only one portion of the solution, for local livelihood protection programs must too be utilized to solve the current Congolese economic stress.

California Seeks to Lessen the Conflict of Minerals

California uses the impetus of the federal Dodd-Frank Act to take action on a state level against conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What impact can one state have?

On July 15, 2010, the United States Federal Government passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). The Act’s mission is “to promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.” Embedded in this 848-page, Wall Street-focused document are five and a half pages that address the conflict minerals trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This brief mention provides just enough space for the United States Federal Government to require companies who file with the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose their mineral sources, as well as to demand the State Department confront this illicit minerals trade.

This trade refers to the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum internationally exported from mines in the DRC. These minerals are incorporated into everyday electronics, such as cell phones, computers, and digital cameras. Many consumers have voiced their concerns regarding the involvement of electronics companies in this corrupt trading system. The trade is ridden with controversy because of the violent Congolese and Rwandan militias in Eastern Congo that control the mines. They take advantage of the DRC’s natural resources to personally profit from the land’s raw materials. In the process, they rape and kill Congolese citizens, subject mineworkers to desolate conditions, and construct an environment of economic hardship. As chronicled by several human rights organizations, such as Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, these militiamen constantly seek to reinforce their position of control and to keep citizens impotent.

“Gold from eastern Congo. The war in Congo is fueled by a thriving gold trade today, with armed groups controlling mines and earning an estimated $50 million last year from selling gold and minerals. This gold is from a day's work at Kaniola mine” Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

The State of California uses this federal act as momentum in its construction of state Senate Bill 861, authored by Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett. The goals of this bill surpass those established in the Dodd-Frank Act. According to a press release from Senator Corbett’s office, this bill “prohibits the state from contracting with companies that use minerals sold by the militias in their products.” The bill takes national legislation and applies stricter enforcement on a local level. Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of Jewish World Watch, explains in an e-mail the relationship between the national and state regulations saying that SB 861 terminates “State contracts with companies that fail to comply with the Federal reporting requirements laid out in Dodd-Frank.” “California becomes first state to pass conflict mineral legislation,” boasted a The Christian Science Monitor headline on September 14, 2011. This article, as well as a previous one from April 13, 2011 entitled “California takes decisive step against Congo’s conflict minerals,” applauds California for using the impetus of the Dodd-Frank Act to create further restrictions for businesses whose mineral sources are involved in the environmental and humanitarian conflict in the Congo.

A representative in Corporate Responsibility at Intel deflected any potential concerns regarding business repercussions from SB 861 stating, “If you are in compliance [with the Dodd-Frank Act], the California [legislation] is irrelevant.” Thus, unless electronics companies fail to comply with national legislation, they will not be deeply affected by SB 861. Furthermore, it appears California consumers need not fear negative outcomes on their electronics products as a result of the state bill. At the same time, it is crucial to note the way in which SB 861 strategically implements another layer of enforcement and ensures businesses remain aware of their global impact.

Within the activist community, California’s efforts are being seen as a decisive step forward to terminate the corrupt Congolese mineral trade. Laura Heaton, writer and blog editor for the non-profit Enough Project, and author of last month’s The Christian Science Monitor article, praises California’s deeper enforcement of the Dodd-Frank Act as “indeed a step forward” and “a huge victory for activists.” She also commends the immense progress of the federal act itself: “the fact that [this] piece of legislation was championed by a broad bi-partisan coalition in Washington is no small accomplishment.” Activists and consumers have long been pressuring the government to take action on this matter and to hold electronics companies responsible for their financial contribution to major human rights violations.

With regard to Senate Bill 861 specifically, Senator Corbett was quoted in a press release from her office saying, “This legislation will help cut off the cash flow, and support, for lawless militias engaged in heinous human rights violations.” Congressmen Henry Waxman (D–CA) also commented on this bill in an e-mail saying he “appreciate[s] the California State Assembly’s efforts to end the trade of these tainted commodities.” Even though companies such as Intel do not appear concerned about economic implications of the bill, it is important to note that California has the eighth largest economy in the world. To display the economic weight of this bill, Senator Corbett’s press release reveals, “California spends $8.9 billion annually in state contracts. The legislation is supported by 28 U.S. investment firms with assets totaling $130 billion.” SB 861 was passed in the State Assembly on September 8 and was signed by California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on October 9.

A Blooming, Booming Market

Fueled by consumer interest and grassroots—or arugula-roots– community organization, farmers’ markets have exploded across the country in the last decade. Businesses and government are now noticing consumer excitement, as well as the practical solutions markets provide, and are getting involved to further the movement.

Alexandre at the Union Square Greenmarket

Andy Alexandre, a chef who volunteers at New York City’s GrowNYC Greenmarket, cheerily spreads hot, fresh, peach jam over a sliver of baguette as he surveys his market. Though it does not belong to him in a proprietary sense, he is so involved in it that to call it anything but “his” would be inaccurate. He emphatically, enthusiastically explains its expansion in the last 5 years, saying, “people realize they want food that tastes good, and then they meet the farmers, and the market grows. The momentum makes it into something that is healthy and growing”.

And this is true not just of Alexandre’s urban, privileged market in Manhattan’s Union Square, but of communities all over the country. The Department of Agriculture has recorded a 400% increase in farmers’ markets between 1994 and 2011, and a 17% increase in 2010 alone.

Alexandre is right: consumer momentum is essential to growth and health, not just for one market, but for the creation of new ones. As  long-running farmers’ markets, such as the 51 supported by GrowNYC, have gained attention and customers through simple values, they are proving to have much wider-reaching benefits.

The Farm and Food Policy Project posits the appeal of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and other community-based food programs as lying in “fewer ‘food miles’ and fewer associated greenhouse gas emissions; more diversification and sustainable production; less vulnerability of the food supply to widespread contamination, intentional attacks, and disruption from natural catastrophes; better access to fresh produce; more stable farm incomes; and more jobs and wealth retained in the local economy.”

Ever-clearer consumer excitement and proven benefits have recently pulled a wider range of groups– including non-profits, local governments, and local businesses– into sponsoring new markets for their communities. Planning, coordinating, and hosting new farmers’ markets allows such organizations to tap into grassroots enthusiasm, support local communities, and work towards specific environmental and economic goals.

New York state governor Andrew Cuomo has intuited the growing support for farmers’ markets as a “solution through food”, and launched a FreshConnect Farmers’ Market program on August 9th. Services include recruiting farmer vendors, coordinating with local officials and business groups, and providing marketing, nutrition education, community outreach, and funding of up to $15,000 to each of the new markets in Harlem, Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, Queens, the Bronx, Utica, Sharon Springs, Brooklyn, Nassau County, and Queens.

Cuomo stated in a press release, “These markets help underserved communities by providing fresh produce, nutritional education, and local jobs. The FreshConnect program empowers all New Yorkers to choose healthy, affordable, locally-grown food. This program is a win-win for farmers and consumers”. Cuomo serves his voters, and his image, by presenting a solution directed at improving health, economies, and communities through food.

Businesses have also sponsored farmers’ markets as a way to show their involvement in and commitment to the community they serve. The farmers’ market in Coventry, Connecticut, for example, has almost 40 business sponsors, ranging in size from “Emma’s Closet” to Whole Foods Market.

“A lot of people involved in the market are customers at our store. They solicit our support and so we want to help them, just because we have a community relationship,” says Matt Miner, who is a manager at Highland Park Market, a Coventry’s farmers’ market sponsor.

Governments and businesses appealing to constituents and customers by supporting farmers’ markets shows just how significant environmentalism through food is becoming. No longer a stigmatized counter-culture lifestyle, the farmers’ market is blooming into something mainstream; a fun expression of the values becoming important to the general public.