Why you should care

Because this woman is uncovering the illicit minerals trade behind one of the world’s deadliest armed conflicts.

From her home office in Oakland, California, Holly Dranginis checks the latest news about the ongoing armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the wall, there’s a large framed map with colorful aerial imagery of the lush rain forests and towering volcanoes of eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park. “It is one of the most beautiful and violent places in the world,” she says about a region she visits at least once a year, usually for a month at a time — and that is the focus of her job.

Dranginis is a 32-year-old senior policy analyst for the Enough Project, an advocacy group dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity. When she visits eastern Congo to research ongoing violence largely financed by “conflict minerals” — tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, known as 3TG — she carries her camera. She didn’t photograph the image on her wall — it’s an enlarged copy of a map that a local gave her — but she’s often snapping photos to capture the breathtaking views. Yet there is a stark dichotomy between the serene rolling hills and the beautiful untouched land and its dark underbelly of violence and corruption. In her fieldwork, Dranginis hikes over hills and around mountains, often wearing a loose dress or jeans and layers in the unpredictable weather — “it can go from very hot to very cold very quickly,” she says — to reach artisanal mines, which often resemble big holes drilled into the side of a mountain. The tin that is mined inside makes its way into a vast range of consumer electronics, including cellphones, tablets and computers. There, she meets with local residents caught up in an armed conflict that has killed more than 5.4 million people over the past two decades. She hears fears about kidnapping and child-soldier recruitment, experiences of rape and families torn apart by murder. Men will sometimes interrupt the women before they get a chance to voice their opinions.

It’s not easy to identify ways to cut off financial support to perpetrators of mass atrocities and hold them accountable. But with a law degree from Berkeley specializing in international criminal justice, sexual and gender-based violence and natural resource trafficking, Dranginis is up to the task. She investigates why violence in a region is lucrative and who is reaping the profits — “in some cases, they’re making millions of dollars from ongoing violence,” she says — and then, with the help of the government, uses policy tools to exert financial pressure. Last summer, when advocacy groups determined that Gen. Célestin Kanyama, the police commissioner of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, was responsible for human rights violations, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed targeted sanctions that included asset freezes and travel bans. Dranginis and her colleagues are working to encourage additional targeted sanctions on other political elites who are profiting from the ongoing conflict in Congo.

“She has great energy that’s driven by a commitment of justice, and she uses her role to amplify the voices of others rather than trying to speak for them.”

— Jennifer Peyser, senior mediator for RESOLVE

It’s little wonder that Dranginis chose this career path. Raised by environmentalist parents in Santa Rosa, California, she watched them take on leadership roles in their local Audubon Society and pen letters to local newspapers to protect open space. At a young age, she says, she learned that “there is more to life than me and my own interests.” Her passion for tackling atrocities through law and policy was ignited about a decade ago when, as a Fulbright scholar in Guatemala, she was living among forcibly displaced survivors of a massacre. One woman explained that while foreign doctors and anthropologists were arriving to provide aid, there were never any lawyers: “‘We want to sue governments and put people in jail,’ she said,” Dranginis recalls.

Today, Dranginis — who practices Ashtanga yoga and is fiercely devoted to Juba, her German shepherd mix that she adopted from Uganda — is a driving force behind the movement to bring peace to Congo. “Holly translates research into compelling calls for action,” says Jennifer Peyser, senior mediator for RESOLVE, a conflict-resolution nongovernmental organization that addresses environmental, social and public health challenges. “She has great energy that’s driven by a commitment of justice, and she uses her role to amplify the voices of others rather than trying to speak for them.”

When she’s not in the field, Dranginis works from her home in Oakland, near the epicenter of the tech industry, calling her contacts on the ground and reading local news coverage and tweets by civilians in Congo. She also reaches out to companies to encourage them to remove conflict minerals from their supply chains. “Once you realize that minerals could be funding armed violence in Congo, you start to realize these minerals could be in almost anything, like jewelry, your cellphone or even kitchen appliances,” Dranginis says. When she and her fiancé got engaged this past year, it was important to Dranginis that her ring be made by Hume Atelier, a Vancouver-based jewelry company that works extensively to support sustainable, peace-based economies and source conflict-free diamonds and gold.

But working to stop mass atrocities comes with significant risks for the very people Dranginis is trying to help. Her biggest fear? That she “would put anyone in danger,” since the people she speaks with could be vulnerable to intimidation or threats once she leaves. Perpetrators who have lost profits may “look elsewhere for money to fund their operations,” says Charles Riepenhoff, managing director in KPMG’s Forensic Advisory Services practice. And abruptly stopping business in some of the mines could threaten the livelihood of civilians.

Fortunately, though, there’s been progress. Today, more than two-thirds of Congolese mines formerly controlled by warlords are part of peaceful supply chains, according to the Enough Project. But that doesn’t keep Dranginis from insistently pushing ahead to unearth new ways to disrupt the ongoing violence financed by conflict minerals. “The fact that extreme violence is being done to civilians by the most powerful people in the country, who should be governing and of service to their people — the injustice of that is just gutting,” she says.

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