Since 1996, over 5 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war. The economic fuel for the conflict comes in part from the country’s rich natural resources, which armed groups fight to control.
This long and complicated conflict seems remote to most people outside of the Congo.But the globally connected economy places the products of this conflict right in our hands, in the form of electronics like our cell phones that use minerals mined from conflict areas.
The nonprofit Congo Calling is working to make these connections more visible, in an effort to get electronics manufacturers to source minerals like gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten more responsibly. Bandi Mbubi, founder of Congo Calling, told me one of the organization’s main goals is to exert pressure on electronic companies to stop using conflict minerals.
At the age of 21, Mbubi sought asylum from the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) in the United Kingdom. He has lived in the U.K. for the past 23 years, and is also the director of a center for homeless people in London.
All of Congo Calling’s work is done by volunteers, with a permanent staff of eight and partnerships with student and advocacy groups around the U.K. The organization is working on the issue of conflict minerals in a number of ways, including lobbying for better laws in the European Union, raising consumer awareness and keeping companies accountable for their sourcing.
Apple recently announced that they will no longer use tantalum from conflict regions, but this is just one of the minerals coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It’s an encouraging step,” said Mbubi. “But next year, what are they going to do?” Congo Calling will continue to push for better practices.
Conflict minerals are devastating to the environment as well as to communities.Mbubi said that environmental problems get overlooked in the face of this scale of human atrocity, including massacres, mass rape, and enslavement. Yet the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the world’s second largest rain forest and many endangered species, which are also threatened by ongoing war.
Mbubi characterized mining in conflict areas as a “free for all,” with no accountability or monitoring, much less any attempt to mitigate the environmental impacts of the mines.
So what can the average consumer do about this issue?First, you can write to your government representative, and let them know you support laws that require companies to audit and disclose the sources of these minerals.
You can also think about what companies you want to support with your next purchase. Mbubi suggests checking out the Enough Project’s Electronics Company Ranking before making your next purchase. “Consumers who really want to play a role can go and check,” said Mbubi.