Corporate coltan rush fuels Congolese violence
With the launch of the Apple iPhone 5 drawing closer, hordes of people around the world scrabbled to their computers to place pre-orders. Hundreds lined up on the streets to be the first to get their hands on the most in-demand gadgetry.
With the pre-order tally reaching more than 2 million within the first 24 hours, it is no surprise that the mineral mining market is booming.
At the heart of the mobile phone production line lies the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); a country that has played host to what is likely the world’s deadliest war since World War II.
At least 5.4 million people have died since 1998 as a result of the conflict, which is partially fuelled and funded by mineral mining in eastern Congo. To give you a bit of perspective; that’s around the equivalent of a Haiti earthquake once every 2 months.
What are they fighting for? Coltan.
Coltan is a dull metallic ore from which Tantalum is derived. It is used to make capacitors that go into electronics like mobile phones, laptops, gaming consoles, all the way through to hearing aids, pacemakers and surgical equipment.
Not only do phones contain coltan, there are on average 22 minerals used in them, including copper and cobalt ― both of which are largely exported from the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo houses somewhere between 15% and 30% of the world’s reserves of coltan. Although the US Geological Survey in 2009 found only 13% of extracted coltan came from the DRC, United Nations figures show more than three quarters of that comes from illegal sources.
Independent armed groups from Uganda and Rwanda, as well at the DRC army have arbitrary power over many mining regions; using child labour, torture, systematic rape and extrajudicial killings to destabilise communities and maintain control.
Since the issue was brought to light in the early 2000s, some manufacturers have sought to eliminate the use of illegally mined Coltan in their products, and the telecommunications industry remains adamant that consumers should not feel guilt.
Nokia and Samsung both have policies relating to their use of conflict minerals. Neither source directly from the DRC but acknowledge the responsibilities placed upon them, and assure regular audits of suppliers to ensure compliance.
Randal Markey, the communications manager for the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), says this is demonstrative of a strong track record of cooperation and compliance with legal directives.
“People buying mobile phones can have some confidence that the manufacturers place a high credence on ethical supply chains; they have acted accordingly,” he said.
“They have put into place practices [and] concrete measures to try and ensure that they source from legal areas.”
The concept of a “guilt-free” mobile phone is not a new one; with many whispers of plans for a fair trade mobile phone to hit the market.
Last year Dutch humanitarian group the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NiZA) and the Waag Society ― a creative arts and science organisation, talked of plans to create the world’s first fair trade mobile phone.
The collaboration aims to produce a mobile phone free of any conflict minerals, but with a year since the last news and no real plans to suggest any progress, the future looks grim.
Hidden path to market
With a surprisingly basic extraction process reminiscent of the gold rush era; smuggling, bribery, and “taxing” of miners on transit routes are frequent and profitable.
Coltan is illegally mined under the unscrupulous watch of various militia groups, then funnelled through bordering countries to refineries, making it nearly impossible to trace and giving leeway for it to enter the supply chain of companies purchasing from legitimate sources.
The minerals make a journey through Africa, Asia, and Europe, often passing back and forth several times before reaching the manufacturer warehouse and being distributed worldwide in electronic devices.
The coltan trade is widely known to be shrouded in secrecy. Much of the racketeering is carried out under cover of night by private firms with little public disclosure.
Global initiatives have emerged to push for more transparency in the commodity chain and greater accountability of manufacturers and suppliers.
The Global E-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) forged the Extractives Workgroup, an initiative which tracks minerals from mine to smelter, and identifies “conflict-free” smelters.
Groups from the United States and Europe also propagate the idea that the telecommunications industry is on the front line against stopping conflict, a sentiment which is echoed by the AMTA.
“To think that industry sits on its hands and does nothing is not correct. [There is] evidence to show that industry and our members do take their role seriously and they do take measures to do it,” said Markey.
“It is very complicated trying to trace some materials from a mine. By the time it gets to a smelter it can be very difficult to find out where that comes from, but within the realms of practicability, industry is taking every step that it should and that it’s required to do.”
If the telecommunications industry stands unified against ending the conflict of the Congo, then why do the massacres continue?
Changing perceptions, not reality
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the industry is more concerned with perception than action and not much is being done to address the government corruption from which the conflict inherently spews.
Mbuyi Tshielantende is a Congolese elder and refugee living in western Sydney; as a former mining engineer he is no stranger to the economics of war.
In 1998, he was exiled from the DRC for opposing the invasion of his country by Rwandan and Ugandan forces.
Tshielantende draws the issue back to basics, blaming Western greed and internal government corruption for the decay of his country.
“The problem is created by America and the West to [cause] instability so that they can rape the mineral resources,” he told Green Left Weekly. “It’s these people who are supporting the government in Congo.
“It happens because the Congo government is weak. It’s corrupted … It is the politics of the commonwealth to get access through Rwanda and Uganda.”
Here lies the heart of the problems of the Congo and the obstacles faced in supporting conflict-free consumerism.
The delicate and complex political problems of the Congo are made worse by the ongoing mineral conflict. Although some efforts have been made by the telecommunications industry to increase transparency, the repercussions for violating them are minimal, or easily side-stepped.
If there is no one to police the police; then accountability means little for the people of Congo.