Spotlight on Congo’s ‘blood phones’

Saturday September 1 2012

A Union of Congolese Patriots fighter controls workers at the gold mine in Iga Barriere, Ituri region, northeast of Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo/AFP/Eric Feferberg

A Union of Congolese Patriots fighter controls workers at the gold mine in Iga Barriere, Ituri region, northeast of Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo/AFP/Eric Feferberg 

By ESMOND SHAHONYA Special Correspondent

As consumers around the world embrace smart consumer electronics, few stop to think of its connection to the blood shed and suffering in eastern Congo.

This region is rich in precious metals used in electronic devices and the exploitation of the minerals has been marked with conflict and illegal trade over the years.

DRC alone supplies almost 70 per cent of the world’s supply of the metal tantalum, which is an ingredient in all mobile phones.

The country has substantial reserves of columbite-tantalite — coltan; cassiterite, wolframite and gold. The coltan is the ore from which tantalum is extracted, while cassiterite produces tin. 

Tantalum is a vital metal in the manufacture of compact and high performance capacitors found in mobile phones, laptops, tablets and gaming consoles.

Wolframite is the metal ore for the tungsten used in the vibration circuits of mobile phones. Tin is a major ingredient in the solder, commonly used on electronic circuit boards. Gold is also present in some electronic products.

Given the ever increasing demand for consumer electronics, these minerals are a highly prized commodity in the factories manufacturing electronic devices.

In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the mines are under the control of various armed militia groups and the Congolese National Army as well.

Cases of human-rights abuse and conflict in a number of mines led to the precious metals being branded as conflict minerals.  Like the “blood diamonds” of Sierra Leone, these “conflict minerals” or “blood phones” are stained with conflict.

Congo is the leading producer of tin in Africa and its eastern provinces have significant reserves of coltan, gold and tungsten.

The country is still struggling to weed out armed groups from the mines. The minerals are a bone of contention, with human-rights groups condemning the inhuman exploitation.

Now an advocacy group, Enough Project, is working to raise consumer awareness of this state of affairs.

“The exploitation of Congo’s mineral resources continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground and consumers are still largely in the dark as to whether or not their products are conflict free,” notes a report released by Enough Project.

The report, “Taking Conflict Out of Consumer Gadgets: Company Rankings on Conflict Minerals 2012,” assesses consumer electronics companies on their progress toward responsible and conflict-free supply chains.

Company rankings

Enough Project’s first company rankings report was released in December 2010. The objective is to rate consumer electronics companies on their efforts to positively invest in the region, as well as their efforts to remove conflict minerals—tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold—that fund armed groups in eastern Congo from their supply chains.

The minerals are used in electronic devices and are a key driver of the war, which has claimed 5.4 million lives. The rankings are designed to help provide consumers with the information to make responsible and informed choices when purchasing electronics products.

The report shows that four leading electronics companies—Intel, HP, Motorola Solutions, and Apple—have established conflict minerals programmes that pave the way for the rest of the industry.

Six other companies—SanDisk, Philips, Sony, Panasonic, RIM, and AMD—significantly improved their conflict free efforts by tracing back into their supply chains, piloting due diligence, and joining a smelter audit programme.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nintendo remains at the bottom of the list and has yet to make any known effort to trace or audit its supply chain, despite growing public awareness.

The quest for a conflict-free electronics world puts tech companies in the spotlight in regard to their efforts in tracing, auditing, certification, legislation and stakeholder engagement.