Tungsten, gold and other minerals used in consumer electronics come from all over the world, but one troubled African nation is a primary international supplier. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) provides much of the tantalum, tin and other precious metals used by dozens of manufacturers in the cell phones and laptops we use every day. But much like blood diamonds, the mining and distribution of DRC ore used in pricey devices fuels continual bloodshed within the borders of that nation.
Congo's second war officially ended in 2003 when a transitional government took over after the signing of peace agreements between African nations. But the fighting still persists. The DRC army has launched several attacks on the civilian population and armed rebel groups have risen up to fight against them. Tensions between the two factions are perpetuated by the profits to be made from the mining industry.
According to a study released by the International Rescue Committee in 2008, the war in the DRC and its aftermath is the deadliest conflict since World War II. An estimated 5.4 million people have been killed in the country since 1998 and 45,000 deaths occur each month–a loss equivalent to the entire population of Colorado.
Robert Hormats, U.S. Under Secretary of State for economic, energy, and agriculture affairs, said on a panel June 20 that the debate surrounding conflict minerals is “one of the most significant moral issues of our time."
These moral issues weigh on the U.S. because we are one of the largest consumers of minerals from DRC mines. Ten percent of the tungsten exported from the country is used by American firms. Tungsten is the mineral that allows cell phones to vibrate.
Every time your cell phone vibrates, your device sends a reminder that its crucial elements have fueled murderous unrest — and rape as a tragic component of the fighting. Sexual assault is a common intimidation tool used in DRC battle zones, as soldiers funded by conflict minerals routinely attack women in contested areas. Over 15,000 victims having been affected between 2008 and 2010, most of them teen girls, according to The United Nations Population Fund.
Steps have been taken to halt the funding of these atrocities, but much remains to be done. President Obama signed legislation in 2010 making it a legal requirement for U.S. manufacturers to disclose whether minerals used in their products come from DRC or a country nearby. Bloomberg reports “that tin ore from the DRC's North Kivu province fell more than 90 percent in the month of April” in response to increased regulation. While good news, critics say that this system of monitoring is not enough to track DRC minerals, which change hands too many times on the way to market to be guaranteed conflict-free.
But at least some pressure is on. DRC mining companies now realize they must step up their efforts to crush the pipeline between fighting forces and U.S. markets if they want to grow. DRC's ambassador to the United States, Frida Mitifu, told TheAtlantic.com: “We really need to find a quick solution otherwise this God-given potential that God put in the DRC might truly turn into some kind of curse.”
It is certainly already a curse to the millions who have been killed, injured and sexually assaulted in the blind pursuit of money to fund war. Sanctions and enforced tracking seem like the only way to force mining companies to cooperate with international authorities, because failure to comply threatens their bottom line. But you can make a difference in that regard, too.
Think about the source materials that go into your next electronic purchase. Make sure what you buy is DRC-free — until this nation can prove that their exports do not fund rape and war. And consider recycling used computers, cell phones and other items, so that mining new minerals (thus sending new funds to DRC war zones) won't be as necessary.