Tin, tungsten, and tantalum are three necessary metals for smart phones, computers, and laptops. The problem is where these metals come from. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article on Conflict the author, David Zax, tells us, “Leading sources for those critically important metals are mined in Congo, where a brutal civil was has claimed more than five million lives since the late-1990’s. Rebel militias and renegade army units earn some 185 million a year by controlling access to more than half the mines and collecting bribes and illicit (illegal) taxes along trade routes”.[i]
In essence, each time we purchase a new phone or computer a portion of our dollars are going into the hands of rebels who maintain profits through brutal and deadly means.
Here is where you think I might be telling you its time to give up your cell phone unless you want to contribute to the violence and bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But that is not my message at all. In fact, if it were not for corruption and violence in DRC the money we spend on those materials could benefit people.
The good news is that our federal government is taking legal steps to influence the manufacturers of our smart phones and computers. Beginning May 31, 2014, companies will have to report to the government whether their products contain “conflict minerals”. If a company secures these minerals from locations not engaged in conflict than they can advertise their product as conflict free.
As Senator Richard Durbin puts it, “Tell consumers the truth and let them decide if they want to buy products made with minerals that finance gang rape and human rights atrocities”.[ii]
Lets hope that the potential bad reputation a company might gain for continuing to rely on “conflict minerals” leads companies to change business practices. And lets hope a loss of illegal money to the rebels cripples their stranglehold on power and helps DRC move toward a more just society with fairer business practices.
BUT!!!! Lets remember that this chain starts with us. In 6 months when you find yourself in the market for your next electronic device will you choose one that contains conflict free metals?
I have been an Apple fan for many years and I really hope Apple shows leadership on this issue so I may remain a fan, but if not, I will look toward the companies that are working to minimize human misery and suffering. I may not be able to stop the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I surely do not want to perpetuate it because of decisions I make about personal electronics.
Picture of a child laborer at a militia-run mine in Watsa[iii]
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Featured Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Democratic_Republic_of_the_Congo_in_Africa_(-mini_map_-rivers).svg
(Democratic Republic of the Congo)