A secret war rages in the Congo, funded by the minerals that end up in our mobile phones. Beth Warin asks: are technology companies and consumers prepared to take responsible action?
Amidst the flocks of angry birds and the alcohol-fuelled texts you sent to your entire contact list last night, chances are you rate your mobile’s importance pretty close to that of a detachable limb. But would you feel so attached if you knew that your harmless gadget was funding warfare in one of the world’s poorest countries?
Most people have probably stumbled across the term ‘blood diamond’ before (in reference to a diamond that has been mined in an area of conflict) but have you heard of ‘blood minerals’ before? Did you know that not a single mobile phone manufacturer in the world can guarantee that their products are conflict-mineral free?
‘Horrendous haze of civil war’
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been suspended in a horrendous haze of civil war for the last fifteen years. Many have hailed it as the bloodiest, most rampant conflict Africa has ever had the horror of witnessing. Never before have so many brutal acts against humanity occurred so frequently, and so often passed unpunished. Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative of the Sceretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently declared that Congo is the “rape capital of the world”. This is evidenced by the common mass rapes of entire villages. Children are born into a culture of violence, and with little or no schooling, their prospects are dim. Many are forced into illegal labour or plucked from their family home and dumped into military training.
The origins of the current war are complicated to say the least. After the arrival of more than two million Hutu rebels in 1994 (fearing punishment in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide) a deadly alliance formed between the Hutu and the political leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Mobutu. Instead of settling into new peaceful lives, the rebels continued their vicious reign of murder by killing any members of the Tutsi tribe they could set their rifle sights on.
Tutsi militia in Rwanda consequently sent their forces to overthrow Mobutu, and they succeeded. Unfortunately, the removal of the Hutu rebels proved to be an impossible task, with various surrounding countries including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola forging and forgetting alliances in the process. All involved were accused of corruption by using the war as a shield to disguise their true intention to plunder the natural resources of the land. Regardless of all the ‘help’ offered, five million Congolese residents have died – be it from starvation, disease or through falling victim to pervasive ethnic cleansing regimes.
Shady supply chains
Although Congo has the natural resources which might signal potential for great wealth, courtesy of a large land mass full to the brim with precious minerals, the widespread poverty, lawlessness and lack of societal infrastructure combine to form the optimal breeding ground for corrupt warlords. Opposing armed forces all jostle for the illegal control over mining resources, resulting in a mistreated, woefully underpaid workforce. Many of the harvested minerals, such as coltan and cassiterite, are then sold to electronics suppliers, who sell their components to phone manufacturers right under our noses. Whilst we download the latest mobile update, children are forced to slave away excruciatingly long hours deep within a stifling, overcrowded crack in the earth.
In an attempt to prevent the sales of these blood minerals, activist groups such as War Child are working with mobile phone manufacturers to create a visibly clean and legal supply chain. Shockingly, most phone manufacturers have known about the issue of blood minerals for at least ten years. This is one of the numerous revelations presented in the film-documentary ‘Blood in the Mobile’, out in cinemas October 21st. It stars Frank Poulsen, a Danish director, who after witnessing the appalling mining conditions first-hand, decides to confront the Nokia headquarters with the tough truth. After many face-to-door collisions, Poulsen finally manages to secure a meeting with a representative. He questions Nokia’s decision to ignore the advice of political activists and maintain a hidden supply chain. This decision prevents companies and consumers from tracing the components of their mobiles and electronics back to the source. He discovers that Nokia are concerned that this heightened visibility could be seen as an opportunity for rival phone manufacturers to copy their technologies. This does make logical business sense, but what of a moral one?
Until consumers are willing to stand up for this issue and demand products that are free from conflict minerals, electronics manufacturers will probably maintain their ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude. Yet most consumers are not in the least aware of the problem; I can safely hazard a guess that prior to reading this article, you probably didn’t know about the existence of blood minerals, let alone imagine that you could possess one of your very own. It is time to educate consumers on the origins of their mobiles.
‘A hefty step in the right direction’
The fact that hard-hitting documentaries like ‘Blood in the Mobile’ are making the big screens is definitely a hefty step in the right direction. Education is also aided by campaigns such as the Enough Project, which is desperately trying to fulfil the ambitious goal of ending all genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa. They have surveyed twenty-one leading electronics companies to assess whether their strategies to deal with conflict minerals are effective, or even in existence. In conjunction with the Enough Project, a campaign called Raise Hope for Congo has ranked companies on their site on the basis of their progress.
Brands such as Nintendo and Panasonic are both well-known house names, and both rank in the lowest category – they have not engaged in any steps to try and source the origins of their supply chains. Whereas companies such as Microsoft, Dell and Motorola all rank highly; they are proactively taking steps to trace, audit and publicise their supply chains. The site crucially gives visitors the option to send a message directly to an electronics company, therefore increasing the pressure for action to be taken.
It’s clear that some companies are ostensibly accepting corporate social responsibility for funding a seemingly infinite cycle of warfare, but how easy will it be for consumers to accept? In a fast-paced society, apparently dependent on a constant stream of new technology, we have all become socialised to eagerly respond to the cry of a new mobile incarnation. Will we be able to slow down for long enough to hear the whispered cry of the dying Congolese? Can we realistically suppress the ‘I want it, give it to me’ attitude in preference for the moral high ground?
I for one would like to keep my pockets clean and un-bloodied.
To view more of ENOUGH Project’s photos, visit their Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/enoughproject/