The Conflict Inside Our Cell Phones

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by Sarah Graham, Grade 10

In the last couple of years a new blood diamond has come to light: blood minerals. Since the electronics boom in the early 2000s the price of coltan alone has dramatically increased. The price of coltan skyrocketed from as low as US$65 to as high as US$600. Coltan is one of many minerals in devices we use every day like cell phones, tablets and laptops.

Blood or conflict minerals are known in the electronics industry as tungsten, tantalum, tin and gold (the three T’s and gold). Tantalum stores electricity in phones, tungsten makes phones vibrate (refined to make coltan), tin is used in circuit boards and gold is used to coat wires.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been conflict ridden for years, and tensions were heightened after a wave of immigrants arrived fleeing the Rwandan genocide. Along with innocent citizens many militias snuck in to the country. These militias started to attack various Congolese ethnic minorities. This conflict eventually led to the overthrow of the president and a declaration of war in 2003. With the second largest rainforest (creating a massive carbon sink) and the largest river in terms of flow the country is ripe for mineral extraction.

Now armed groups run the mines in the east and profit off the sale of minerals. Coltan exports are especially high as the DRC holds 80% of the world’s supply.

Children and prisoners of war are often forced to work in the mines. Forced labour presents a mass amount of human rights atrocities that contributes to the most deadly conflict since World War II. The conflict would be easier to stop if the militia groups did not have access to an endless supply of minerals that can be used to purchase arms off markets in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Not only are armed groups supported, but precious resources that could be going toward the development of the DRC’s services are lost through smuggling or corruption. The Rwandan army exported $250 million of coltan in 18 months despite having no recorded Coltan reserves. The DRC is allowing itself to be abused by multinational companies and losing an opportunity to develop its infrastructure, programs and government.

Similar to what happened a couple of years ago with conflict diamonds, consumer pressure on companies and governments have prompted the demand for a system to classify “conflict-free” minerals. The Kimberley Process was created to prevent the diamond industry from supporting conflict in parts of Africa. The comprehensive program traces diamonds from the mines to the factory. Since implemented mass amounts of blood diamonds have been prevented from making it on to the world market.

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill was passed in the US and requires all US companies to ensure the minerals they use are conflict free. This year, all companies will be required to audit and post their policies on a public website. Unfortunately, this regulation only applies to companies that are required to file annual reports in the US.

The bill does not enforce fines on companies that do not report properly. So although companies won’t suffer any financial losses if they do not comply, their public image could be badly damaged, as was Apple’s over a human rights scandal last year.

Nokia, the largest manufacturer of mobile phones, introduced the first public policy of its kind on February 2, 2012. The policy requires all suppliers to map out their supply chains, prove auditing for the past five years, introduce training to all their employees and ensure they will fully adopt Nokia’s policy.

A supply chain is a map of information that traces minerals from extraction to sale. There are many other sub-steps in between and this process can be incredibly difficult to track. Minerals will transfer hands various times or travel through road blocks that rebels have set up to generate some extra cash. Hopefully with Nokia mapping out their supply chains other companies will be able to follow suit.

The big problem with conflict minerals is the lack of regulation to properly determine if a mineral is conflict free. The mining industry desperately needs its own Kimberley Process. With this process electronics companies have no excuses for buying conflict minerals and ethical mining will still be able to continue in the DRC.

Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada also agrees that a Kimberley Process-inspired program would be effective. When she spoke at our school earlier this year, she talked about the need for better monitoring of these minerals and believes companies and consumers need to step up to make a change.

With increasing action from large companies and public pressure to stop conflict minerals from being used in all of our cell phones and computers, we are on the road to success. Before the Kimberley Process stopping the blood diamond trade seemed impossible. Now let’s apply this process to minerals which are perpetuating an even deadlier conflict.

1 COMMENT

  1. Sarah,

    I commend you on your thoughtful, informative, well written piece on what is a complex but desperately urgent topic. Thank you for helping educate us about this issue.

    You referred to Samantha Nutt’s belief that companies and consumers need to step up to make a change. I wonder if in your research you’ve come across any suggestions as to what specific actions we consumers-of-blood-minerals-in-our-electronic-gadgetry can take in order to advance that change? It is a complex problem, so not obvious at what point in the process, and with which players, pressure from us consumers is likely to have the most impact.

    Thanks,
    MHK

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