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How Our Tech Addiction Funded a Genocide

Updated on April 5, 2016

Did The Smartphone Fund WW3?

After reading the title you may be thinking 'hasn't there only been two World Wars?'

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a World War is "A war involving many large nations in all different parts of the world".

Between 1994 and 2003 five million people died in a conflict in central Africa, just 1 million less than died in WW2, yet many people are unaware of this conflict.

Although the majority of the fighting has ceased, the features of a war - death, child labor, forced labor and rape is still prevalent.

The situation is complicated and involved many central Africa nations, you may not consider this a world War in the absolute sense, yet the War was partially fought over and funded greatly by natural mineral wealth.

Minerals which were mined in Africa, purchased by international companies, turned into products in the Far East and purchased by consumers in the West.

There is very high chance that the PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone you are reading this on contains minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), often in dangerous conditions, by children and at the barrel of a gun.

Anyone who has purchased an electronic device including printers, pagers, Internet routers or a smartphone has, by proxy, funded the biggest conflict since WW2.

How Much Does an Apple Watch Really cost?

Apple has unveiled its latest product, the Apple Watch in its signature cult style.

But do its diehard fanbase, who will queue up all night to ensure they are one of the first to pay over the odds for a product which will be outdated in less than six months, know the real human cost?

The $399 price tag does not fully reflect the true cost which is often paid in human blood far away in Central Africa. And once the device is outdated and forgotten about, sitting in the bottom of your draw, the pain and suffering which was endured in Central Africa to produce that phone will be forgotten too.

The link between the phone in your pocket and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is related to the components, or more specifically the minerals that make up those components. The minerals used in smartphones and many other electronic devices are Gold, Coltan, Tin & Tungsten which often originate from conflict zones like the DRC and have helped fund a conflict which has killed over five million people.

The issue is that funds from mining these minerals in the DRC contribute to funding the Civil war since many of the mines are either run by or controlled by either government forces or rebels, who use the money to buy weapons which ensures the perpetuation of the conflict.

It may be unfair to single out Apple when almost every modern electronic product manufacturer uses the same minerals in their products, including mobile phones, laptops, pagers, tablets, printers and digital cameras. The problem does not always lie with the manufacturers, a combination of unregulated mines, civil wars, corruption, lack of infrastructure and a multi layered supply chain can make it almost impossible to ensure minerals are conflict free. The nature of the process from mine to product, which spans many continents and middlemen, can make traceability difficult, even for companies with a determined attitude to discover the origins of the minerals they use.

DRC Conflict

The conflict, which ran from 1994 to 2003 was one of many which has occurred over the past two decades and are often referred to as the ‘Congolese Wars’ which include fighting between Government forces (FARDC) and rebels (FDLR). The conflicts have been fought locally, regionally and nationally and involve not only Congolese nationals but Hutus who fled over the porous border since the end of the Rwandan conflict in 1994.

The charity War Child outlines the situation and the problems in trying to stop the international trade in minerals used in electronic devices that contribute to human rights abuses. Many of the mines are not large scale, organised and professionally run with huge trucks and machinery; instead they are operated by what is know as artisan miners, individuals or small groups of people, not employed by a mining company and usually using the most rudimentary tools, and sometimes just their bare hands. Many of these mines are controlled by either the rebels or Government forces, although both deny any involvement. Usually those in control of the mines use violence or the fear of violence to charge the miner illegal taxes or duties. Subsequently the men, women and children risking their lives daily rarely see any substantial returns and the DRC, despite containing some of the planet's highest gold deposits, remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Conflict Minerals

Conflict minerals, similar to blood diamonds, share common features. They both originate from some of the poorest parts of Africa and end up on the fingers or in the mobile phones of citizens of some of the most affluent countries. The people who suffer and die to extract them from the ground rarely benefit financially. In fact these natural resources are more often a curse than an asset.

The main difference between blood diamonds and blood minerals is that many people in the West are aware of blood diamonds, even if they do not own any. Awareness of conflict minerals is far less widespread, despite the fact that if consumers own a mobile phone, laptop or even a printer there is high chance it will contain minerals mined at the barrel of a gun. An article on the TechRepublic website details some first hand accounts of the working conditions inside a militia controlled mine where 15,000 people dug for minerals and others panned for gold nearby. One miner said: “Sometimes people worked 24 hours out of 24…..miners died of fatigue and drowned when the pits flooded”.

War Zone to Walmart

The transition of minerals from mine to device is far more convoluted than diamonds to jewelry and this process facilitates a collective ignorance amongst manufacturers and end users. An article in TIME magazine highlights this issue and describes how most manufacturers are the last link in a long supply chain, purchasing minerals from smelters and thereby removing responsibility of checking the conditions under which they were mined.

Some efforts have been made to stem the use of conflict minerals, in 2010 the Dodd-Frank Act passed by US president Obama and implemented by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) two years later requires manufacturers to audit their supply chains & report conflict mineral use. It should be noted that the act only requires manufacturers to report on conflict mineral use and does not explicitly demand the cessation of conflict mineral use.

Despite the Act being challenged in US courts by the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufactures and the Business Roundtable, some companies, such as Intel have made concerted efforts to review their supply chains and attempt to eliminate the use of conflict minerals in their products.

Intel’s Conflict Minerals Report for the year ending 2013 is the only third party audited report, however it still states that some minerals are “DRC conflict undeterminable”.

Progress So Far

Intel is, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule as an article in the Guardian details. Other large companies such as Microsoft, Canon & Walmart have either left filing their SEC reports to the last minute or provided the bare minimum required.

Despite efforts, the link between the phone in your pocket and a death count that rivals the Holocaust persists.

And as 25th December fast approaches and children in the West will be ‘dying’ for the latest electronic gadget, sadly, someone somewhere in Central Africa probably will be too.

A customer clicks his heels in celebration as he is one of the first to obtain the latest Apple product, applauded by Apple Store Staff.
A customer clicks his heels in celebration as he is one of the first to obtain the latest Apple product, applauded by Apple Store Staff.

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