Conflict Minerals and Blood Tech

by Joey deVilla on June 27, 2010

conflict minerals

Say the word “silicon” and chances are, you’ll think of technology. After all, silicon’s relationship to tech – it’s part of what makes transistors and chips – has been part of popular culture for decades, from the “Silicon chip inside her head” opening line from the Boomtown Rats’ song I Don’t Like Mondays to “Silicon Valley” as the nickname for the suburban expanse between San Francisco and San Jose.

Silicon is only part of the equation, however. The chips that drive our computers, mobile phones and assorted electronica are actually a “layer cake” consisting not only of silicon, but also oxide and metal.

There’s also the matter of key non-chip components like capacitors, which momentarily store an electrical charge. They’re made of thin layers of conductive metal separated by a thin layer of insulator. We use their “buffering” capabilities to smooth out “spiky” electrical currents, filter through signal interference, pick out a specific frequency from a spectrum of them and other “cleaning up” operations.

One of the metals used in the manufacture of capacitors is tantalum, which you can extract from a metal ore called coltan, whose name is short for “columbite-tantalite”. About 20% of the world’s supply of tantalum comes from Congo, and proceeds of from the sale of coltan are how their warlords – the scum driving the world’s most vicious conflict, and who’ve turned the country into the rape capital of the world – are bankrolled.

Nichloas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about metals like tantalum purchased from Congo – conflict metals – in an op-ed yesterday:

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these “conflict minerals” out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia.

He also points to the Enough Project’s latest video, which used humour and a reference to the “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” TV commercials to draw the public’s attention to conflict metals and to encourage them to contact electronics manufacturers and ask them to be more vigilant when sourcing components:

The Enough Project says that auditing component supply chains at the smelters to see whether the metal was sources from “clean” places like Australia or Canada instead of lining the pockets of Congolese warlords would add about one cent to the price of a cellphone, and that this figure originates from within the industry. I’d happily pay a thousand times that for each of my devices – a mere ten bucks – to ensure that I wasn’t bankrolling rape and murder.

I’ll close this post with the closing paragraph from Kristof’s op-ed:

We may be able to undercut some of the world’s most brutal militias simply by making it clear to electronics manufacturers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to enrich sadistic gunmen. No phone or tablet computer can be considered “cool” if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce Kanary July 16, 2010 at 9:55 pm

You know… I am fed up with the crap that keeps coming out of the tech industry. There are Mount Everest size junk piles of their old “throw away” garbage that they refuse to address, never mind deal with in any serious way. Then they take their companies to China so they can be produced in the sweatshops there so we think we are getting a deal on them here… Then if you want to discuss a problem with what you bought from them, you have to speak with someone in India or the Phillipines… and now this. I guess this is what happens when you allow the moral-less business community to run the World.

Kevin Beckford July 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Errm, are you familiar with Nicholas Kristof’s body of work? Seems plausible, what you say, but Mr Kristof is a source compromised since Iraq. How about we start paradise construction at home?

Then, when all see the endless splendour of our society, and all accept it’s demonstrable “rightness”, then we can go out into the world, with our little nanofactory created plexisteel plaques that simply say:

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Surely, there can be no flaw in such an approach?

Robert Smith July 17, 2010 at 2:32 pm

We need more posts about how to contact these companies as a high enough level to be meaningful. We need email address that reach the people who make decisions. My recent decision to hold off on buying and iPad was more of an environmental decision, since I have an iTouch with really doesn’t get much use. However, I had no idea that the human costs involved were so high. Now I intend to purchase less electronics, make those purchases based more on need than want, and choose conflict free manufacturers. My worries are that these scum of the earth will get new middle men to appear conflict free. Until then, I EXPECT any company that wants my money to CHECK their business partners and suppliers!

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Brandon July 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm

This idea, while good on paper, doesn’t really work in the real world. For every ton of tin that Apple or Motorola or whoever doesn’t buy from war zones, they will need to buy a ton of tin from elsewhere. That ton of tin from Australia which was formerly sold to, say, Coke or Aramco or a Chinese industrialist, will now have to be replaced. The free market will work its magic, and the ton of Congo tin will find its way to the place whence Apple poached the Australian tin.

Even by going down stream, to the smelters, the issue is the same. There are smelters in South Africa, north Africa, China, Russia and even Australia, Canada and the United States which are happy to purchase metals from the Congo, if the price is right.

The war continues, we just don’t have the fuel/spoils in our cell phones.

john karnes July 18, 2010 at 6:08 pm

If this is true and i will be doing more research on it you can bet, its horrible beyond belief. But the only burning question in my mind is: how does one link rape and the selling of these metals? I can understand forced slavery and even cheap wages, imprisonment for rebelling against work conditions but to say that rape (which in my thinking pattern is done for other reasons that obtaining metals from the ground) is connected, i think this is an extremist ploy to conduit allegiance for this cause. Rape may occur in the jail but that would be the by-product of sickos in the jail, would it not? Anybody can go to jail for any reason and lets say, rape is connected to car theft then.

Meghan September 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm

John, in the DRC rape is being used as a weapon of war. Rape is cheaper than bullets and is the easiest way to destroy a community and gain control. In their society the victims of rape are often shunned and abandoned by their husbands and villages. It is terrible to think about but believe me it is a very real problem. No one is being spared in these rapes, from newborns to the elderly everyone is at risk. Kristof’s description is unfortunatly very accurate, there is not only rape but forced incest (making a farther rape his children) and children being forced to eat their parents is also very common.

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