Blood on Our Hands?

cellphones, conflict materials, and the best hope for the DRC

by by Kelsey Shimamoto

illustration by by Charis Loke

Next time your phone vibrates across the table, consider the secret provenance of your unassuming cell phone. Consider its capacitors, its wiring, the other components that make up its guts: statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that some part of it was stripped from an illegal mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a hammer and chisel, under conditions not far removed from slavery. The profits from that part’s sale helped purchase weapons, pay solider salaries, and finance crimes against humanity. It’s an image that seems fundamentally at odds with the business-like Blackberry, the glossy iPad, the sleek Macbook, yet all rely on the same violence-tainted minerals for their production. Worldwide demand for these minerals has risen with the explosive growth in the manufacturing of cell phones and other electronics. And as prices rise, so do the stakes in mining, and the commensurate suffering of those caught between armed militiamen and the minerals that stand to earn them tens of millions of dollars.

Once mined, the mineral ores—mainly coltan, gold, cassiterite, and wolframite—are sold to traffickers, beginning the long, strange journey into the homes and pockets of consumers all over the world. To obscure their illicit origins, the minerals are smuggled across the Congolese border to neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda, and then out of Africa to refineries in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. At this point, they are smelted and mixed in with minerals from other sources, making their origins nearly impossible to trace. The refined elements are then sold to electronics companies, for use in vital components of cell phones, laptops, game consoles, and in nearly every type of consumer electronic: tantalum, extracted from coltan, is used to make the capacitors that store energy in power supplies; tungsten, refined from the mineral wolframite, is used, among other things, to create the components that allow cell phones to vibrate; tin, from the mineral cassiterite, is used as a solder on the circuit boards of most electronics; gold, in addition to its value in jewelry and other goods, is used to insulate wires.

Currently, there is no electronics company in the world that tracks the sources of its minerals, or has the capacity to determine if their products contain militia-mined Congolese minerals in their products.

Twelve hundred men, women, and children were killed today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), joining the twelve hundred that died there yesterday and preceding the twelve hundred that will die tomorrow, the latest casualties of the Second Congo War. An estimated 5.4 million Congolese have been killed by violence or succumbed to starvation and preventable disease since the most recent resurgence of hostilities in 1998, the toll of a war that ranks as the deadliest conflict since World War II in terms of human casualties. It’s also one that many have never even heard of.

Involving forces from eight nations and more than two dozen armed groups with different ambitions, political entanglements, and areas of influence, the war in the Congo defies compression into a single, coherent narrative. Destabilized by years of misrule by former President Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC (then known as Zaire) first plunged into violence in 1994 as fighting related to the civil war and genocide in neighboring Rwanda spilled over the eastern border. Since then, the country has been the site of unrelenting internal strife, despite several changes in leadership and the signing of official peace accords in 2003. The conflict’s latest iteration has witnessed the adoption of extreme sexual violence as a weapon of war, leading to rates of mass rape unmatched anywhere else in the world. Though accurate statistics are notoriously difficult to gather due to underreporting (and indeed, the lack of any law enforcement agency to report to), estimates place the number of rapes that have occurred during the course of the conflict in the hundreds of thousands. In the absence of an effective central government, many war-torn regions in the east of the country exist in a semi-anarchic state, with armed forces vying for control of resources, fighting for land, and clashing over ethnic divisions. Heavily armed, and with the promise of impunity, the Congolese military and armed militias execute horrific inhumanity on a scale impossible to describe adequately, let alone explain. And their activities are financed, in part, through the international trade in consumer electronics.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, encompassing fertile volcanic-soiled farmland, a sizable portion of the second largest rainforest on Earth, and a river system that could, according to a report by the UN, provide enough hydro-electric power for the whole continent. The country also presides over vast mineral deposits, valued at upwards of 24 trillion dollars (an amount significantly larger than the combined annual GDPs of the United States and China). Despite these natural resources, Congolese citizens have the second lowest nominal GDP per capita in the world, just behind neighboring Burundi, with 80 percent of the population living on the equivalent of 20 cents a day.

Congo’s recent history has been marked by the ruinous exploitation of its natural wealth and people. The region was purchased in its entirety by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885, who proceeded to loot it for rubber and ivory. Leopold’s soldiers became notorious for enforcing rubber quotas by cutting off workers’ hands, and an estimated 8 to 10 million deaths are thought to have occurred under Belgian colonial rule. The Congo was granted independence in 1960 and has since been governed by a series of corrupt and ineffective presidential regimes. The longest lasting of these regimes was that of Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in 1965 in a military coup following the (allegedly) US-backed removal and assassination of the country’s first president, Patrice Lumumba, for his Communist sympathies.Mobutu’s 32-year rule beggared the country, as he nationalized mining and proceeded to embezzle an estimated five billion dollars while roads, government services, and the remains of the colonial infrastructure fell into ruin. At the time of its independence, the Congo was the second most industrialized country in Africa. However, in the intervening years, no presidential regime has managed to create a viable Congolese economy.

The lack of an organized central economy has led to the proliferation of small-scale, subsistence mining operations, where miners use hand tools to extract valuable ores from the area’s many deposits. More than half of these open pit mines are controlled by militias, who exploit the population of the surrounding areas to harvest the valuable ores in exchange for meager wages and under grueling, unsafe working conditions. Many of these subsistence miners are children between the ages of 10 and 16, and injuries, mine shaft collapses, and worker abuse are the norm. Profits from the lucrative trade in these ores are used to finance the purchase of more weapons, which in turn fuel more violence, looting, and rape.

Organizations like the Enough Project, Raise Hope for Congo, and STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, advocate education on the issue, urging the public to assert their influence as consumers and shareholders to demand “conflict-free” electronic alternatives and to refuse to invest in companies that trade with militias, such as the South African gold mining giant AngloGold Ashanti. Activists at colleges across the US, including Brown, have begun to wage divestment campaigns to make their campus “conflict free.” A resolution calling on companies it invests in to track their minerals sources (the first of its kind), was passed in June 2010 by the Stanford Board of Trustees.

On a national level, the recently passed Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act contains a section requiring companies that use these minerals to begin monitoring their supply chains and to publicly report on the success of their efforts. The bill calls for the Security and Exchange Commission to draft guidelines regarding the implementation of supply chain monitoring, which advocates of conflict-free electronics could then use in the boycott of companies that refuse to comply. However, a final draft of the guidelines has not yet been released, and the conflict mineral provision of the bill lacks any type of mechanism to ensure corporate compliance. As such, it currently stands as a largely symbolic gesture.

Others seek the creation of an international monitoring system akin to the “Kimberely Process,” the protocol created by the UN in an attempt to curb the sale of so-called “blood diamonds.” In the Kimberely Process, diamonds are shipped in specially sealed containers along with a document certifying their provenance and assuring that they were mined according to mandated ethical standards. The problem is that the efficacy of the Kimberely certification process depends on the presence of a stable government—evidence has shown that the process is not effective in areas without a credible central authority to certify the diamonds. The enfeebled and corrupt central government of the DRC certainly lacks the ability to provide such monitoring.

To further complicate matters, the illicit mineral trade isn’t the only operation fueling the arming of militias. Several militias are not funded by mining at all, but by taxing the movement of goods through areas under their control; through trade in charcoal, timber, and other resources; or else by the financial backing of external sources. The mineral trade appears to be just one of several factors, economic and ideological, driving the continued violence. It remains unclear if shutting down mines is the most effective way to curb the atrocities perpetuated by militias.

If the recent attempted mining ban in three of the most volatile regions of the DRC is any indication, then no. Enacted by current president Joseph Kabila in response to international pressure to reign in illegal mining, the September 2010 ban simultaneously plunged the regional economies into chaos and failed to bring about a substantive decline in violence in the area. The ban was lifted a month later, demonstrating a grim reality: despite deplorable working conditions and the rampant exploitation of miners, sustenance mining provides the sole source of income for more than a million Congolese. Cutting off their access to a daily wage without providing for an alternative means of income only leaves miners more impoverished, more vulnerable to the ravages of starvation and more at the mercy of armed groups.

However, this doesn’t mean that the tracking of mineral supply chains, combined with the establishment of an effective governmental body to oversee mining operations, wouldn’t benefit the country enormously. The current system allows tens of millions of dollars worth of mineral ore to flow out of the DRC, without any sort of external monitoring. These resources, untaxed and unregulated, contribute little to the long-term economic development of the country. Legitimizing the mining of coltan and other minerals—and subjecting them to taxation—could be a crucial step towards stabilizing the country. The revenue generated could be used to fund the provision of any number of critical and currently absent governmental functions: defense, healthcare, law enforcement. However, this is contingent on the possibility that government corruption, ranked by Transparency International as some of the worst in the world, could be successfully curbed. The best hope for a functional government undoubtedly lies in the election of honest, effective government officials. Elections are due to be held in November of this year, although the country currently lacks the 346 million dollars necessary to fund democratic safeguards to ensure free and fair voting.

A look at Botswana, a country with substantial diamond deposits, provides an example of how a government can successfully use its mineral resources to fund education, infrastructure, and other services. Botswana, which derives 40 percent of its government revenues from the mining industry, has one of the fastest growing per capita income growth rates in the world, as well as the least corrupt government in Africa, according to Transparency International. In the hands of an honest and effective government, Botswana’s natural wealth has been used to generate jobs, shore up government stability, and vastly improve the quality of life of its citizens.

The war in the Congo is not a simple conflict, and it will not be solved by making a few small changes in the way we buy. It is naïve and hubristic to assume that we as consumers have the power to “fix” the DRC simply by purchasing this phone or laptop instead of that one. But it’s not a bad place to start. By pressuring companies with a vested interested in Congolese resources to be accountable for their suppliers, consumers could potentially help introduce reform to the Congolese mining industry. That, combined with aid to bolster the DRC’s failing democratic institutions and the continued engagement with humanitarian and diplomatic operations in the region, could very well constitute the first steps towards a fragile peace.

KELSEY SHIMAMOTO B’13 asks: “Can you hear me now?”