Friday, October 15, 2010

Is there blood on your mobile phone?

The world's attention has this week been centered on the 'dramatic rescue' of 33 men, who for 69 days were trapped underground in a mine in Chile. This episode has brought to the fore the sad reality, of the hazards...the dangers...that many people around the world put their lives on the line to earn a living...and for the rest of us to enjoy the conveniences of our modern lifestyles.

The mobile phone you own...that laptop from which you are probably reading this post right now...the DVD player from which you will most likely be enjoying movies from this weekend - gadgets that we cannot imagine living without - all carry electronic capacitors, manufactured from tantalum - which is extracted from the mineral Coltan.

Some of the largest reserves of coltan in the world, are to be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, the DR Congo is estimated to have $24trillion ( equivalent to the combined Gross Domestic Product of Europe and the United States) worth of untapped deposits of raw mineral ores. The provinces of North and South Kivu in the eastern DRC are filled with mines of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan and gold - minerals needed to manufacture everything from lightbulbs to laptops, from MP3 players to Playstations. According to the Global Witness report (July 2009), armed conflict in the eastern region of DRC, has for the past 12 years been funded by the exploitation of these valuable natural resources. Often, the supply chain of these minerals from the armed militias, to the middlemen to international buyers is difficult to track. This means that by the time metals reach electronic companies, they may have changed hands as much as seven times.

So; without a clear supply chain -  when you go to that important meeting and set your cell-phone to vibrate, a function enabled by the mineral wolframite-it is virtually impossible for you to know whether you are using wolframite mined by children in the eastern DRC, the site of horrific fighting, rape and massacre. It is estimated that between 6 and 7 million people have been killed since the conflict started in 1996. Armed groups frequently force civilians, many of them children, to mine the minerals, extorting taxes and refusing to pay wages.

DR Congo is rich in minerals but much of it has been plundered over the years
DR Congo is rich in minerals but much of it has been plundered over the years
A UNICEF report notes that almost an entire generation of Congolese children have missed out on an education, and concludes that "children in the DRC have suffered far too much and, if this situation is allowed to continue, there is a risk that a new generation will be created that has known nothing but violence...thus compromising the country's chances of achieving lasting peace." An entire generation? Now that is frightening. It implies that 20 to 30 years from now, we might still be talking about the conflict in the DR Congo. This is as long as there is a thirst for more sophisticated electronic devices.

What can we do? What can you do? I don't know. I haven't any answers. But after the events in Chile, i have resolved to learn as much as i can about the conflict in Congo, what fuels it, and what my responsibility, as a consumer of electronic products is - and to let others know. I will be sharing these reflections, reports, and on my Facebook page.

Please watch this documentary, 'Blood Coltan" :

If you are reading this...please...spread the word. Its probably the least you can do. Ideas are welcome though! When you make that phone call...or receive that text message..or make that important power point presentation...spare a thought and say a prayer for the children of the DRC.
Is there blood on your mobile phone? Probably.

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