Your Cell Phone’s Blood Diamonds: Conflict Materials from Congo

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By Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

Do you recycle your cell phones? It’s a great practice for insuring that toxic materials in those old phones don’t make their way into the environment. But what about the other side of the cell phone lifecycle? Do you know where the materials come from?

It turns out that many of the minerals in that phone have an ugly story behind them, similar to that of blood diamonds., a project of Participant Media, produced the PSA above as part of a larger campaign to educate the public about the role "conflict minerals" play in funding armed groups fighting in the Eastern Congo.

According to Raise Hope for Congo, a campaign of the Enough Project:

The conflict in eastern Congo, the deadliest in the world since World War II, is being fueled by a multi-million dollar trade in minerals that go into our electronic products from cell phones to digital cameras.

Over five million people have died as a result of the war, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in eastern Congo over the past decade. The armed groups that are perpetuating the violence generate an estimated $144 million each year by trading in four main minerals, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, all of which make our consumer electronics products function properly.

I spoke with David Sullivan, a research associate with the Enough Project, about the issues surrounding the situation in the Congo. Sullivan addressed the multiple atrocities — human and environmental — surrounding the trade of these materials, and the actions you can take to ensure electronics manufacturers are aware of these issues.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q. Often, situations like these arise from limited economic opportunities. What other means of making a living are available in the Eastern Congo? Are there options that couldn’t be as readily exploited by armed groups?

A. Impoverished Congolese miners and their families are often entirely dependent on their meager income from mining, and they currently have few viable economic alternatives to lift them out of this indentured servitude. What could be the most promising alternative to mining is agriculture, but the threat of violence often forces Congolese farmers to abandon their fields to flee for safety.

Efforts to end the trade in conflict minerals absolutely must be accompanied by international support for livelihoods and economic opportunities in eastern Congo. Rebuilding roads is a key opportunity, so that other sectors can benefit from trade. Infrastructure projects with guaranteed labor at decent wages can help lure miners out of conflict mines and create opportunities for demobilized combatants. Larger firms can raise miners’ living standards if independently verifiable mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the corporations are not contributing to armed groups, and health, safety, and labor standards are observed at mining sites.

International investment should be stepped up in agricultural development initiatives in eastern Congo, which mining has displaced in recent years. Good models for agricultural investments in mining areas exist in Sierra Leone. Other livelihood initiatives, such as small business development projects, should also be promoted. All projects should be designed in close partnership with miners themselves, and should also be followed up with education initiatives for miners.

Why purchase these minerals from the Congo in the first place? Aren’t they readily available in other parts of the world?

These minerals are found in many parts of the world, but they are much less expensive to purchase from Congo. The percentage of the global supply of these minerals coming from Congo is relatively small, from one percent to 20 percent, depending on the specific mineral. Australia had been the world’s largest producer of tantalum but recently suspended all production due to an inability to compete with cut-rate production from Central Africa, particularly eastern Congo.

It is important to note that the Enough Project is not calling for a ban or boycott of Congolese minerals, which would hurt miners. Instead, we encourage the development of tracing and auditing mechanisms to improve the transparency and legitimacy of the existing trade, so that over the long-term these resources benefit the Congolese people.

The Raise Hope for Congo site focuses on protecting and empowering women and girls. How does the extraction and sale of "conflict minerals" particularly harm women and girls?

Congo’s protracted wars have led to incredibly wide and diverse violence against civilians by an array of armed groups. In particular, sexual violence has become a tool of war and control for the armed groups in Congo on an immense scale. The same armed groups that reap enormous profits from the mineral trade in eastern Congo regularly commit conscience-shocking atrocities as they jockey to control the region’s most valuable mines, transportation routes and opportunities to impose extortionary taxes’ on those involved in this trade.

Since the beginning of 2009 we’ve seen an increase in reports of sexual violence that has coincided with the renewed offensive by the Congolese armed forces against the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia whose leadership was responsible for the Rwandan genocide. Many of these incidents have occurred in and around mineral rich areas of the eastern Congo.

What are the environmental repercussions of the economy surrounding the extraction and sale of conflict minerals? Are there environmental justice issues at play here (beyond forcing people to harvest these minerals against their will)? What are they?

Mining in conflict areas of eastern Congo takes place generally without regard for environmental protection. Pollution, erosion, deforestation, and poaching are all side effects of mining. In addition, armed groups such as the FDLR control mining areas in and around protected areas such as Kahuzi-Biega national park, where they threaten endangered species including gorillas.

The same armed groups that control the mining and trade of minerals are also involved in the illegal production of charcoal in national parks, which involves rampant deforestation. Dismantling the war economy and developing a legitimate mining sector with oversight by capable government institutions would mitigate these environmental impacts.

Are there "non-conflict" options already on the market for consumers?

At the moment, conflict minerals are a systemic problem for the entire consumer electronics industry. This underscores the need for consumers to ramp up the pressure on companies to trace and audit their supply chains to ensure they are not contributing to the conflict, and to help the development of conflict-free mineral supplies from Congo through a more transparent and legitimate trade.

That’s why Enough developed the Conflict Minerals Pledge, which calls on electronics companies to ensure that their products are conflict free. By signing the pledge, companies commit to tracing and auditing their supply chains, so that when we as consumers buy an iPod or cell phone, we can be certain that our purchase is not funding crimes against humanity. Consumers can endorse the pledge and add their voice to the thousands of people who have already called on these companies to practice their due diligence.

What kind of response have you received from manufacturers of cell phones and electronics? Are they willing to participate in the pledge, or other activities aimed at eliminating the sourcing of conflict materials?

We have received replies from 17 of the 21 companies we’ve contacted, as well as a response from the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, or EICC, a corporate social responsibility industry association. These responses provide an opening for dialogue with the industry, and the EICC has commissioned research about the supply chains for tantalum and tin. We look forward to continuing to talk to these companies and hope to see some of them exercise leadership on this issue by signing the pledge in the near future.

We are encouraged by the high number of companies that have responded to date, and their willingness to engage in constructive dialogue, but it is clear that it will take the engagement of activists and consumers to help keep the pressure on to ensure that all our electronics products are conflict free. If you haven’t already contacted these companies you can do so in one easy step here.

Want to join the effort to keep "conflict minerals" out of your electronics?

Watch the video, go to the Raise Hope for Congo site, and then endorse the Conflict Materials Pledge. Let cell phone and electronics manufacturers know that you’d like them to pledge to trace their supply chains of these materials, and conduct verified audits of those supply chains. Also let them know you’ll be keeping an eye on them, and purchasing only from manufacturers who take the pledge.

(Originally published at Sustainablog)


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