The European citizen and conflict resources

Climate & Natural resources09 Jan 2014Ries Kamphof

European consumers can contribute to more sustainable supply chains and less social, economic and ecological deprivation.

According to an annual report published by the International Telecommunications Union in 2012, the number of mobile-cellular subscriptions increased to a total of around 6 billion, or 86 per 100 inhabitants, globally. The mobile phone, or ‘smartphone’ is a symptomatic example of a product which is used by many global citizens who do not know how the supply chain of these products is related to conflicts. The supply chains of the mobile phone (and other electronics) industry encompass many national and firm boundaries. Social and ecological conflicts manifest themselves during the extraction (mining) phase, around smelters and even after consumption when electronic waste is sometimes dumped in oceans or developing countries with more flexible environmental and social legislation.

The power dynamics over natural resources reveal a playing field which is far from equal. Securing access to natural resources is an understandable quest for governments and companies around the world. However, as sketched by others in The Broker’s Power Dynamics and Natural Resources dossier, natural resource extraction is happening too much nowadays at the expense of the socially and ecologically ‘deprived’. Around the artisanal mines in Peru, for example, the Ecuadorian Yasuni-ITT, the Congolese Lake Kivu or even more remote parts of the world. In that way, ‘what can be done to eradicate the root causes of natural resource conflicts?’ is a more than valid question. I argue that a large group of people represents one of the most overlooked (sub-) solutions to this global problem: the 500 million citizens in the European Union (EU).

Critical raw materials and the economic lens

Three years ago, the EU identified a list of 14 ‘critical’ raw materials, all minerals and metals.1 These raw materials are subject to a ‘higher risk of supply interruption’ according to the report. The last sentence is a formulation framed in what many would call the dominant viewpoint: the economic lens. Indeed, as the governments and corporations in the EU have outsourced many of the ‘dirty’ mining explorations to other parts of the world, it now becomes clear that the European industry is lacking some of the most critical raw materials and natural resources in Europe itself. Among them are many fairly unknown examples to the wider public, such as antimony, beryllium and fluorspar or more renowned examples such as rare earths and coltan. The critical raw materials are best recognized by their applications, such as solar cells, electric cars, display panels, batteries and medical equipment. These raw materials are not only ‘critical’ for the European industry but are also related to many of the conflicts as outlined above.

EU citizens and their role

With an increasing demand for products, and indirectly raw materials, due to a growing worldwide population in the coming decades, it is necessary to look for possible solutions. In a way, individual citizens and consumers are the most overlooked solution to the problem. In the EU, for example, they can contribute to the solution for more sustainable supply chains and less social, economic and ecological deprivation in at least three ways.

First, EU citizens and consumers can become far more active in recycling products. Recycling provides environmental benefits –it decreases emissions and reduces electronic waste. Especially in the electronics industry, where many critical raw materials are used and extraction methods are criticized, the recycling rate remains low. For example, in 2011 less than 1% of the cell phones discarded annually were recycled. In the Netherlands, and most likely also in other EU countries, citizens are far less active in recycling electronic products than plastics or paper.2

Secondly, citizens can contribute to the solution by buying less resource-intensive products or reusing them. The difference between critical metals and minerals as compared to fossil fuels like oil is that the former can still be used after consumer activity; the resources are not depleted or used up. A transformation towards more socially aware and environmentally-conscious consumption can be encouraged by awareness-raising campaigns in schools and public information campaigns. This call is also recently echoed by the UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the future of the development agenda after 2015.

Thirdly, EU citizens can actively compel their producers to be more transparent about how their products are made. There is already a growing trend to increase the transparency of the product supply chain. This is visible in rankings of NGOs and (mostly voluntary) transparency initiatives such as the Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiative (EITI). Transparency is even more legally enforced by initiatives like the Dodd Frank Act in the United States. Also, the United Nations (Ruggie principles) and OECD (due diligence) have become more active arbitrators of human rights in the extractive industries. These transparency initiatives bring more information on how products are made and which companies (and governments) are working more sustainably and less at the expense of people and planet. The power of citizens lies in demanding more information and transparency.

Citizens as drivers of the solution

The complexity of eradicating the root causes of natural resource conflicts require a holistic and multistakeholder effort by governments, industries, civil society and others. However, citizens can and must be the drivers of that effort. As consumers and voters, they can and should demand more transparent information on the origins of their daily products. Moreover, they themselves can contribute by playing a more active role in recycling and by leading the transformation towards more sustainable consumption and production with their consumer choices . Thus, citizens in the EU and elsewhere can play a constructive role in creating a solution for the more deprived citizens elsewhere in the world.


1.Antimony, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, rare earths, tungsten, platinum group metals, cobalt, tantalum, niobium and beryllium.
Carabain, C.L., Spitz, G., & Keulemans, S. (2012). Nederlanders & afval: Jonge en oudere Nederlanders over afval. Onderzoekssreeks (Vol. 5). Amsterdam: NCDO. & Kamphof, R. (2013). Grondstoffen. Globaliseringsreeks (Vol. 7). Amsterdam: NCDO. See