Unintended Consequences: Democratic Republic of the Congo

For Dominic Parker, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, a research foray into mining practices in Africa dug up some unexpected findings.

Parker wanted to study effects that recent U.S. legislation might have on “conflict minerals”—raw materials from parts of the world where conflict affects their mining and trading—from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a large nation in central Africa that has experienced decades of war and corruption.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Act, aimed at making significant changes to financial regulation. Tucked into the complex legislation is Section 1502, which requires manufacturers to do due diligence on the sources of minerals used in the production of electronics, including transparent reporting of whether their purchase of minerals might be financing warlords or militia groups in the DRC.

Parker set out to study the consequences that Section 1502 might have in places far removed from Washington, D.C. What he found, in collaboration with CALS colleagues Jeremy Foltz and David Elsea, and with fellow researcher Bryan Vadheim, is that the legislation has had a ripple effect with ramifications for violence and health in the DRC. Their work has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists and the Journal of Law and Economics.

Tin, tungsten and tantalum—known as the “three Ts” of conflict minerals—are linchpins in the production of everyday electronic goods, including smartphones and laptops. But they are typically harvested in areas where government rule is limited or altogether absent. In this vacuum, militia groups form and instill a crude type of order.

Rather than put their reputations at risk, many corporations simply chose to source their minerals elsewhere. As they pulled out of the DRC, mining became a less lucrative industry—so militia groups started to relocate, becoming more desperate and inflicting more violence and predation upon civilians.

At the same time, the domestic government of the DRC banned noncorporate mining—work that is usually done with pickaxes and shovels, often called “artisanal” mining. In many parts of the DRC, this type of hard labor represents the “only game in town” in terms of employment, according to Parker.

Empirical evidence also suggests that Dodd–Frank, combined with the domestic regulations, has had dire effects on family health. The infant mortality rate in areas surrounding mines nearly doubled in the years following what Parker describes as a “one- two punch” of legislation.

“What we think happened was that this big economic disruption reduced access to health care, either because services and facilities were less accessible or because families didn’t have the income any longer to get the health care they needed,” says Parker.

The future of the industry is uncertain, as is the long-term viability of Dodd–Frank itself. In 2016, the European Union passed its own form of regulation that promotes responsible sourcing. Untangling the effects of these laws isn’t as easy as simply repealing them.

“There are layers of different policies and regulations in place, so the governance of conflict minerals is now extensive and quite complex,” says Parker.

Though his past work has focused elsewhere, such as in studying land trusts, Parker acknowledges this chapter of his career is likely far from over. Early this year he was interviewed twice on the BBC World News. And in March he was invited to testify at a Washington, D.C. hearing about conflict minerals held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy. Though that hearing was postponed, it is clear that policy changes are being considered.

“The wheels are in motion now, and the health of vulnerable populations is at stake,” Parker says.

Mali: Helping women farm

Women in many industrialized countries are all too familiar with the “second shift”—the domestic duties they still perform disproportionately (compared with their husbands) once their formal workday is over.

That phenomenon is also key to understanding women’s work productivity in a developing country like Mali, according to studies led by Jeremy Foltz, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

More than farm technologies, family structures determine agricultural productivity for Malian women, Foltz found. Understanding both household priorities and labor allocation for Malian women outside of farming was key to Foltz’s research on generating improvements in agricultural productivity.

Foltz received a seed grant from the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison to explore gender, agricultural productivity and sustainability in Mali. One of Foltz’s graduate students, Julie Collins, focused her research in Mali on issues that cause women’s fields to have lower yields than those farmed by men.

Foltz’s and Collins’ research offers a new perspective on women as farmers in Africa. Women’s duties at home and with their children are their first priorities, the researchers found, leaving women with less time for farming.

“These findings have huge implications for how one thinks about women in agriculture in Africa,”says Foltz. “Most of the current thinking is that women are inherently less productive, so we need to get them better technology to help them be better farmers. Our data suggest a different story.”

Women can produce as much as men, Foltz says—and those who do either don’t have many children, or they can call upon more labor in the home.

Time-saving features and solutions, including childcare, could make a big difference, giving women more time to farm. So would basic utilities and appliances. “Certainly things that reduce the amount of time women need to spend on household chores— like running water and gas stoves—would have a positive effect on production,” Foltz says.

Creating any new agricultural technologies designed specifically to help women in Mali must acknowledge labor demands in their homes. “Technologies that solve productivity issues for Malian women are not exclusively agricultural,” says Foltz.

Time-saving solutions in the field could also increase Malian women’s crop yields, Foltz says.

“Women I have talked to in Mali are very excited about the possible use of herbicides because weeding labor is the hardest thing to come by in the production system,” says Foltz. “If you can spend money to get rid of your weeds rather than labor time that you don’t have because you are taking care of your kids, you’re ultimately going to save time and improve your productivity.”

Mexico: Mapping the roots of poverty and inequality

What makes development projects work? Jennifer Alix-Garcia, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, is diving deep into Mexico’s history to shed light on that question. Specifically, she seeks to illuminate what political, climatic and epidemiological events in 16th-century Mexico tell us about the country’s modern agrarian system—and what role history played in defining the present.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found an advanced society of about 25 million people. Only six decades later, European diseases and local plagues, coupled with the severest drought in 600 years, had killed 90 percent of the native population. It was one of the worst demographic collapses in human history.

“Such radical depopulation had to have a large impact on the institutions developed by the Spanish colonists,” explains Alix-Garcia. In particular, the population collapse enabled the colonists to claim land once farmed by those who had succumbed to pestilence. This led to the formation of large landholdings (haciendas) that dominated the Mexican economy and society for generations.

“The hacienda owners were able to control the labor force because they owned most of the land,” says Alix-Garcia. Worker shortages led to coercive labor practices that mimicked European feudalism or even slavery.

Though the hacienda system no longer exists, Alix-Garcia and graduate student Emily Sellars PhD’15 show that it continues to shape Mexico’s development. During the 20th century, more than half the nation’s land was redistributed in one of the largest agrarian reforms in history. Haciendas were dismantled and peasants were given common-property parcels—or ejidos—that allow for limited farming rights without direct ownership.

Using data on population and land ownership from colonial days to the present, the team has mapped patterns of land distribution in modern-day Mexico. They find that areas with the highest depopulation saw the greatest increase in land inequality, which subsequently led to high demand for land reform.

“We’re using events occurring four centuries before the reform to predict its intensity,” says Alix-Garcia. “We hope this will help us understand the role of land redistribution on the well-being of today’s rural communities.”

Despite decades of agrarian reform efforts around the globe, evidence on their development impact remains elusive. Recent studies in India and South Africa show poverty reduction effects, but the particular case of Mexico’s reform defies the pattern.

“I want to map Mexico’s development outcomes so that we can see if our theories about the power of institutions are correct,” Alix-Garcia says. “If we can recognize the fundamental sources of inequities in society—the importance of specific local institutions embedded in a long history—we can design policies that truly encourage economic growth.”

Kazakhstan: Dam monitoring protects water supply

Unpredictable flooding and droughts, which scientists predict will intensify with climate change, elevate the importance of dams for managing and storing water, even in places that normally receive adequate rainfall. Maintaining the world’s existing dams helps ensure that farmers will have the water they need to feed the planet’s burgeoning population.

To aid that effort, graduate students Charles Chang and Andrew Schreiber, both in agricultural and applied economics (AAE), have created software that can quickly and inexpensively determine a dam’s structural integrity using their algorithm and data from easily installed fiber-optic sensors, such as those already in use at the Koksarai Dam in Kazakhstan.

“Our system gives water managers a more cost- effective way to monitor the overall integrity of dams than any other technology,” says Chang. He is col- laborating with a team of engineers who developed the sensors, led by Professor Ki-Tae Chang at South Korea’s Kumoh National University of Technology. The sensors, which measure water seepage through a dam, provide real-time data the researchers are using to locate areas of erosion that could eventually under- mine the dam’s capacity.

“We’re targeting dams in developing countries, most of which are used as reservoirs for agriculture. Many of them have no solid core and are easily moved by high water pressure, or they are older dams that need maintenance,” says Chang. “We can give water managers the information they need to decide whether repairs are required.”

Up to now, notes Schreiber, “Earth dam monitor- ing has required considerable amounts of capital and labor, leaving poorer communities at a loss.”

Chang and Schreiber drew on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team to create their product. The team includes civil engineering professor Chung R. Song of the University of Mississippi and Jesse Holzer, a UW computer science graduate student. AAE professors Tom Rutherford and Corbett Grainger serve as project advisors.

“Some models of dam sustainability measure the effects of sedimentation in the reservoir, but our project goes farther by looking at the erosion factor,” says Chang. “For example, if Kazakhstan were to experience less rainfall due to climate change in the coming years, we would want to maintain a higher reservoir level in the dam for future agricultural use. But we also know that higher water levels can trigger more erosion.”

As economists, Chang and Schreiber want to help governments predict how much they need to invest in a dam to increase its capacity. And because different climate change scenarios can affect both sedimentation and erosion—the main causes of dam failure—the team will model the returns toinvestment in dammaintenance or aban-donment. “What is thebenefit to society tohave that dam rein-forced or allowed to collapse?” Chang asks.

After implementing erosion detection algorithms for earth structures in Korea and Kazakhstan, Chang andSchreiber now collaborate with pH Global,a start-up venture that creates inference algorithms for a variety of geotech- nical public amenities, such as tunnels and dikes.

“A fifth of the world’s population lives in water- scarce regions, and most dams lack monitoring capability,” says Chang. “With our algorithm and sensors, water managers can minimize costs by using less hardware and more software.”

The students may have a viable commercial product on their hands. It has drawn some attention in South Korea and France, Chang says, and several contracts for using it are already in place.