The well-documented armed militia violence and human rights abuses linked with artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold – the so-called 3TG group of minerals – in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have for years presented an ethical trade dilemma to importers.

The US and Europe have attempted to ameliorate concerns by enacting new certification schemes for 3TG sourced to the DRC (and neighbouring states). These laws require firms to specify whether their products contain any 3TG sourced from this region, and if so, whether the material can be certified as ‘conflict free’ – a designation reserved for minerals whose sale has not benefited armed groups, and whose extraction did not utilise forced or child labour. China has introduced similar guidelines, but compliance for Chinese firms remains wholly voluntary.

In practice, a variety of factors on the ground limit these schemes’ chances of effectively preventing militias and criminal groups from profiteering from internationally-purchased 3TG. Moreover, focusing on a ‘conflict free’ stamp as the sole requirement for the export of these minerals to the West ignores the ways in which their extraction leads to spinoff local and regional environmental crime.