Is Your Cell Phone an Accessory to War?

You may be surprised to learn that your everyday electronic devices are created using minerals which fuel conflict, war, and both human and animal rights violations in areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo. I know -- it all sounds so far-fetched. I mean, how could a common device like an iPhone have such a dark side?

They’re called “conflict minerals” and these special materials, which cook up each generation of smart phone or laptop, are mined in war-torn Congo. Astonishingly, thousands of people are killed, raped and tortured each year in order to produce the minerals required for making our electronic devices. People living in local African mining communities, are forced to participate, most notably in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), where the profit derived from these minerals is used to further violent causes. Companies like Apple, for instance, utilize conflict minerals like Tantalum in order to produce their electronics; minerals which have been smuggled out of places like the DRC or Rwanda, providing smelters with the product necessary to create our computers, phones and other devices. 


The issue with smelting these minerals, however, is that this process renders them virtually untraceable, leaving little to no clue as to whether they were ethically sourced or produced at someone else’s expense. The U.S. Government’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, signed into law in 2010, requires that American, publicly traded companies audit their supply chains and disclose whether any of the minerals used in their products are tied to conflict — but this Act does not require the disclosure of information pertaining to smelters. Though Apple released a report which disclosed all of this information — and more — it is not nearly enough, considering that Tantalum (named after a Greek mythological character) is just one of the many conflict minerals used in their electronic devices. Reporting the use of Tantalum is a start, but it doesn’t truly cover it all. Considering the costs associated with compliance of the Dodd-Frank Act — which could reach upwards of $4 billion for some 6,000 companies — it is fair to assume that not every conflict mineral will be reported on, especially as many audit procedures are open to corruption. It doesn’t appear to matter that, whilst we demand a new generation of electronic devices, the production of such products are driving a wider wedge between the developed and undeveloped areas of the world, where we on the other side of the globe are unaware of suffering in the DRC. 


In 2010, the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) reported that gorillas in the Congo may go extinct by the mid 2020s, due to massive mining of land in the Congo inhabited by these gorillas. Unsurprisingly, much of this conflict trade for minerals is illegal, and the mass destruction to both land and communities puts the natural assets of the Congo in severe detriment. This need and greed for wealth has placed the DRC in a state of such severe conflict, that recent years have seen this area of Africa turned into a battleground where neither humans nor wildlife (like the gorillas) have much hope for a brighter future. 


In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow, the story’s narrator, describes the scene of ivory he sees as he sails up the Congo River. The novel, which details Marlow’s journey and all he sees as a riverboat captain working with the Company in Congo, is scarily similar to the situation which Congo is currently experiencing thanks to the global demand for conflict minerals. It seems that the novel — which is pretty sad and will definitely kill your vibe if you read it right after you’ve finished a Jane Austen novel (trust me on this one) — foreshadows much of the mass conflict taking place in the DRC today. Militias in the DRC can generate upwards of $50 million per year, all at the expense of land fragmentation essential to the survival of species such as the gorilla. The mining of such conflict minerals like Tantalum and Coltan are indeed responsible for the hastening decline of the gorilla but, also, 10 other African primates. 


What, then, is the solution to the conflict mineral issue? If we so badly need our iPhones, iPods and i-Whatevers, what solution can we come to in order to help mediate such conflict as seen in the DRC today? There are many great ideas and proposals to saving species and helping to mitigate human & animal rights violations. The Taronga Zoo, for example, has a cell-phone recycling program which urges visitors to donate their old cell phones; these devices can be recycled and reused, requiring one less device in need of conflict minerals. Your zoo likely has a similar program. How about a conflict-free phone? Just like fair trade chocolate, you can purchase a phone not steeped in blood from sites like Fairphone, or from companies who seek to create products made with minerals which have not passed through the hands of militias in the DRC. You could also try living electronics-free, ditching your new iPhone6 at a phone-recycle centre and living “off the grid” by reading books instead of watching Netflix or getting outdoors as opposed to watching Planet Earth on your tablet. 

Of course, in today’s world of electronic-obsessiveness and technology-dependency, it isn’t that easy to live without these devices, and many companies aren’t exactly batting a thousand when it comes to producing more ethical electronics. However, positive changes are being made and solutions being created with the introduction of cell-phone recycle programs and updates to technology that do not require the use of conflict minerals. In a world full of technological advancements, it may not be so far into the future that we will see conflict-free electronics dominating the market. News which would certainly be great for areas like the DRC.

Jacalyn Beales