Conflict Minerals: The Sad Truth About Western Technology

Conflict minerals are minerals which are mined in areas of armed conflict, most notably the Democratic Republic of Congo. The control of the mines which contain these very valuable minerals is the source of a great deal of conflict. The conflict exists between the Congolese National Army and rebel groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (DFLR) and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). It is estimated that around 5 million lives have been lost in the Congo due to these conflicts. A lot of profit can be made from the sale of these minerals to Western countries. But why are they so valuable? The minerals which are at the heart of these conflicts, and the subsequent human rights violations, are cassiterite, wolframite, coltan (a very important mineral), and gold.

These minerals are essential in the manufacture of electronic devices which we depend upon: mobile phones, laptops and iPods. The controversy surrounding conflict minerals parallels the same controversy surrounding conflict diamonds; better known as “blood diamonds.” Although many would assume that gold would be the most valuable of these minerals, it turns out that it is actually coltan (the metal ore from which tantalum is extracted) which has the most wide-ranging applications: pacemakers, airbags, GPS systems, laptops, digital cameras, video games consoles, mobile phones, jet engines, and many more.

The mines are located in eastern Congo and surrounding many of these mines are armed groups. Civilians are forced to work on these mines, which include children, and these slave labourers are forced to work up to 48 hour shifts, in dangerous, life-threatening conditions (inside tunnels, for example, which have been known to collapse and kill those inside). Violence, rape, and sex trafficking have been documented as methods which rebel groups use in order to control the local population. All of this horrible business – slavery, sex trafficking, rape, death, violence, conflict, and child abuse – lies at the very root of the technologies which the Western, developed world relies upon.

That said, due to the awareness that has been raised about this situation, certain legislation has been put in place to force businesses to disclose whether they are sourcing conflict minerals. Groups such as Free the Slaves and various Congolese human rights organisations, such as CREDDHO, have worked hard to bring these abuses to the attention of the Western world. Consequently, the legislation was enacted as section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. The legislation requires that companies to state whether their supply contains minerals which were mined in conflict areas and war-zones in the Congo. The aim of this was to cut off funding to the rebel groups who are causing havoc in eastern Congo.

While the aims and ethical considerations behind this law are noble, some argue that it is both damaging to businesses and ineffective as a way to appease the on-going Congolese conflict. The House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, for example, had members who maintained that such legislation burdens US corporations, makes them less competitive and limits their ability to create new jobs. It may seem like the members of these committees are only concerned with the profit-making ability of companies in their country, however, others have argued this legislation does little to help the Congolese people. Rick Goss, a lobbyist with the Information Technology Industry Council, described how "countless companies are fulfilling redundant paperwork obligations ... writing reports and scheduling audits," in order to conform to the regulations, which he said, "yield few, if any, benefits to the people of the Congo."

In fact, the irony of the whole thing is that those who are the worst affected by this law are the Congolese miners themselves. Since the legislation means that conflict minerals will be in less demand, it follows that the mining of these minerals will also be in less demand. Isn’t this a good thing? Surely this means that less children will be forced to work in dangerous environments? Perhaps. But it also means that low-income workers who rely on mining for their income will be out of work. A similar parallel exists in the sweatshop trade. Sweatshop workers often have to work very long hours for a very low pay (regardless of laws relating to overtime or minimum wage). The environment may also be hazardous, and worst of all, child labour laws may be violated. The Western world depends on sweatshops for the production of our most cherished clothing brands and other luxuries which we depend on. However, just as with the conflict minerals legislation, anti-sweatshop legislation can work to put these low-income workers out of work, often forcing them to work in worse conditions (outdoors all day long) and for a lower pay.

In any case, since the Dodd-Frank legislation was introduced, mineral exports from Congolese conflict areas has dropped by 75%, with business giants such as Apple and HP no longer sourcing these minerals. Consumers buying an iPod can at least be assured that, as a consumer, they have not contributed to the Congolese conflict. Reports also show how the Congolese army has pulled out of several mines, although to completely correct the situation further reforms may need to be put in place. There has also been a rise in the arrests of Congolese army commanders for minerals smuggling and rape crimes.

Kyle Whitaker, manager of SustainAbility, says that letting companies know that their product is in demand, and that conflict-free technology is important, is far more effective than refusing to purchase technology which may contain such minerals. Ironically, we should not be boycotting conflict mineral-based technology, but use that very technology to voice our concerns about this issue. Phones, laptops, digital cameras and video cameras are the tools which organisations and campaign groups need to demonise the very things that they’re using. Texts, phone calls, photos, videos, emails, social media, online petitions – these are powerful and valuable forces for social change. Those who are purchasing electronics, if they are concerned about whether conflict minerals are used, have a responsibility to play their part in enacting change. In the end, it is technology which connects all of us and which should be used as a force for global positive developments. 

For more about conflict minerals, check out this Vice documentary.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com