Living in an interconnected world

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Article Published 27 Jun 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
7 min read
Photo: © EEA/John McConnico
'…the sheer weight of the combined aspirations and lifestyles of 500 million Europeans is just too great. Never mind the legitimate desires of many other billions on our planet to share those lifestyles.... We will need to change the behaviour of European consumers. To work on people's awareness and to influence their habits.' Janez Potočnik, European Union Commissioner for Environment (March 2010).


Five years ago Bisie was jungle. Located in the Wailikale territory, east Congo, it is now a cramped township as a result of the discovery of cassiterite, a derivative of tin that is a crucial component in the circuitry of many modern gadgets. It's in your mobile phone, laptop, digital cameras and gaming devices.

Cassiterite is widely sought after and very valuable. Indeed our demand for consumer electronics has resulted in a price surge for tin ore. Prices on the London Metal Exchange have increased from around USD 5 000 per tonne in 2003 to more than USD 26 000 per tonne in late 2010, according to the Financial Times.

Today a range of natural resources in the forests and jungles of the Congo are in great demand. Nevertheless, the Congo remains extremely poor. During the past 15 years more than 5 million have died in eastern Congo in a war between several armed groups. And it is estimated that no less than 300 000 women have been raped.

This has happened before in the Congo, which was colonised just over 100 years ago by King Leopold II of Belgium. He became one of the richest men in the world by selling rubber from the Congo. This was the time of industrialisation and the booming car industry depended on rubber.

Our longstanding demand for natural resources to feed, clothe, house, transport and entertain ourselves is accelerating just as stocks of certain resources are reaching critically low levels.

Natural systems are also subject to new demands, such as for plant-based chemicals or for biomass to replace fossil fuels. Taken together, these mounting demands on a shrinking resource base point to serious risks to Europe's development.

'As global citizens we are all tied to the violence taking place in the Congo. The extraction of conflict minerals that sustains this conflict connects us all.'

Margot Wallström, UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. 

Development for everyone

'The Millennium Declaration in 2000 was a milestone in international cooperation, inspiring development efforts that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provide a structure for the entire international community to work together towards a common end.

'The goals are achievable but improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow, and some hard-won gains are being eroded by the climate, food and economic crises.

'The world possesses the resources and knowledge to ensure that even the poorest countries and others held back by disease, geographic isolation or civil strife can be empowered to achieve the MDGs. Meeting the goals is everyone's business. Falling short would multiply the dangers of our world — from instability to epidemic diseases to environmental degradation. But achieving the goals will put us on a fast track to a world that is more stable, more just, and more secure.

'Billions of people are looking to the international community to realise the great vision embodied in the Millennium Declaration. Let us keep that promise.'

BanKi-moon, Secretary General, United Nations, in 'The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010' (UN, 2010)

Europe and the new balance of power

As the 21st century progresses we see that more and more key global dynamics are outside Europe's influence and control. This has implications in terms of access to resources.

Globally, we see marked uncertainty regarding supply and access to a range of crucial natural resources: food, water and fuels. Europe's need for resources could in coming decades be matched by those of China, India, Brazil and others, putting even greater pressure on the environment.

Indeed, some developing nations are racing towards levels of economic activity equal to Europe's: their populations, consumption levels and production capacity have the potential to dwarf ours. Their legitimate quest to develop economically and socially will lead to greater use of global stocks of raw materials. China in particular is proving adept at securing access to raw materials from a range of countries and regions.

The human population is growing, technologies are advancing and the power of non-governmental private actors such as multinationals is expanding. In the context of weak international governance mechanisms, these forces threaten a global 'free for all' in securing and accessing natural resources.

Globalisation: a framework for human development

The very nature of globalisation also provides opportunities and structures for a different outcome. The seeds exist for effective, fair global governance of matters critical to us all.

The United Nations 'Millennium Development Goals' are just one example of a global policy process devoted to equitable and sustainable human development.

International climate talks have made progress over the past year. The Cancún Agreement, signed in December 2010 acknowledges for the first time in a United Nations document that global warming must be kept below 2 °C compared to the pre industrial temperature.

The agreement confirms that developed countries — whose industrial activities and footprint initiated manmade climate change — will mobilise USD 100 billion in climate funding for developing countries annually by 2020. It also establishes a Green Climate Fund through which much of the funding will be channelled.

Innovations such as the so-called 'REDD+' (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism enable action to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. None of these activities would be possible without global governance structures and a spirit of cooperation.

The European Union is seeking to promote collaborative responses to common challenges and goals. The EU's 2020 Vision sets out a strategy for growth designed around a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy.

A growing role for non-state actors

Global political processes clearly have an important role to play in ensuring that economic growth doesn’t destroy the underlying natural systems. But another defining characteristic of globalisation is the growing importance of non-government actors.

Multinational businesses, such as mobile phone and IT companies, can alsoplay a key role in delivering sustainable development. The first company to certify their products as free of ‘conflict’ minerals will have a positive impact on many lives and massive marketing potential.

We must take the innovative research and development examples of leading companies and apply them to the challenges facing us. We must mobilise the full range of problem-solving capacity available to us towards continued, sustainable development.

As citizens — individually and through non-governmental organisations — we are also mobilising. Some of us take to the streets to protest. Some are investing their time and energy in rediscovering food or community activism. Many are adjusting their consumption choices to minimise environmental impacts and ensure a fair return for producers in developing countries. The point is: globalisation is affecting all of us and we're beginning to wake up to the fact that we are not powerless: we can shape things.

Develop, create, work and educate

We must continue to develop, to create, to work and educate ourselves, and become smarter about our use of natural resources. For example, the first, critical aim of the Millennium Development Goals is to secure the natural environment on which the poorest of the poor depend for their daily survival.

This means managing natural resources in a way that that allows local communities to survive, then benefit and then advance. This is one of the major challenges facing us globally as we shall read in the next chapter on resources and forest-dwelling people in India.

It's a challenge in which Europeans have a large part to play. Managing global resources sustainably will be key to equitable economic prosperity, greater social cohesion and a healthier environment.

Hands Innovation: minerals


At the Federal Institute of Natural Resources and Geological Science in Hanover, Germany, Dr Frank Melcher heads a team developing a way to certify the minerals used in electronics — in the same way as diamonds are certified. Each of the minerals in question has a distinct 'fingerprint' connected to its place of origin. 'To fingerprint minerals such as coltan and cassiterite we drill a small hole through that sample,' Dr Melcher explains.'Then we scan the sample for about two to three hours. We then analyse the volume for its composition. This is the fingerprint. And this is very typical for Bisie.

'From every grain analysed here, we get the formation age — the geological age — and we can say: this material must come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or from Mozambique, because we know exactly how old these grains should be.

'So it is technically possible to trace the raw minerals but they must be traced before they are smelted into metals,' he says.

Dr Melcher's work is undertaken as part of cooperation agreements between the German and Congolese governments for the project 'Strengthening of transparency and control of the natural resource sector in DRC'. Initiated in 2009, the work supports the DRC Ministry of Mines in implementing a mineral certification system for tin, tungsten, tantalite, and gold.


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