Is Your Cell Phone Fueling Rape and Murder in the Congo?

conflict minerals photo

Photo by Mark Craemer

It's easy to remove ourselves from the conflicts in the Congo. We can sit back with our computers on our laps and read about the war in the DRC, taking note of the atrocities and shaking our heads. But in at least a small way, the computers on our laps, the cell phones in our pockets, the gadgets we use day in and day our are helping fund the deadliest war in the world. Luckily, the blogosphere is recently abuzz with talk about conflict minerals, thanks to an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
New York Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof writes, "I've never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo's, and it haunts me. In Congo, I've seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents' flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices."

He asks, what if our desperation for new toys -- the kind that compels people to set up a tent in line in front of a store for 10 hours just to be among the first to lay down their credit card -- could be put to use helping alleviate the situation in the Congo.

Some electronics manufacturers go a long way to ensure their supply chains don't touch conflict minerals. It is one thing Nokia takes a very firm stance on. Apple also takes measures to get suppliers to avoid conflict minerals, but acknowledges that keeping control of one's supply chain is difficult. When a reader asked Steve Jobs about the issue, Jobs replied:

Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem.

Sent from my iPhone

The responsibility rests not only on suppliers and manufacturers, but also on consumers. When consumers like the reader above express their concern about the source of the materials and refuse to purchase anything that isn't certified as conflict free, there is little forcing manufacturers and suppliers to keep a sharp watch on their production lines.

Eve Ensler puts conflict minerals in another light -- rather than calling for gadgets to be conflict free, she calls for them to be rape-free, noting that rape and female mutilation is a major tool of war and one being used in the DRC.

We've shown what a conflict mine looks like here on TreeHugger, thanks to photographer Mark Craemer. You can view the slideshow here. However, the real images of war in the Congo are intensely more graphic. And it's those images that any device made from conflict minerals is helping to fund.

Some feel that manufacturers are not necessarily doing enough. There is legislation working its way through Washington that "would require mining companies to not only report to the SEC if certain minerals originated in DRC or neighboring countries, but also detail what steps the company took to ensure its mineral purchases did not benefit armed groups in Africa." It's not much, but it's something.

Meanwhile, there are things you can do too. Check out Conflict Minerals 101 on Planet Green to learn the basics of the problem, then find out the next steps you can take alongside The Enough Project, which has easy tools for contacting your congressperson. And of course, demand from manufacturers that they prove their devices are free from conflict minerals before you purchase them.

Written in the New York Times piece, "'There's no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,' notes David Sullivan of the Enough Project, 'but this is one of the drivers of the conflict.' The economics of the war should be addressed to resolve it."

Indeed, the economics of the war, and the economics of our own consumption, need to be addressed, and now.

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More on Conflict Minerals
Major Electronics Manfacturers Ignoring Their Role in DRC Conflict Mineral Mining
No More "Blood Phones" -- Conflict-Free Electronics Can Help End the World's Deadliest War
Conflict Minerals 101: Coltan, the Congo Act, and How You Can Help

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