Coltan: from Congo to our smartphones

Coltan: from Congo to our smartphones

Have you ever thought what is your smartphone made of? Do you know what is needed in order to produce computers, phones or tablets? Is it all of that related to conflict? Actually, the last answer is affirmative.

As we know, the situation in The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is very complex. The completely impoverished country is at the same time one of the richest countries in natural resources, counting from a multitude of minerals to timber and oil. DRC has the essential minerals for the manufacturer of a variety of devices such as cassiterite (for tin), wolframite (for tungsten), coltan (for tantalum), and gold ore, which are extracted from the eastern Congo.

 

Figure 1: North Kivu (DRC). María Olivera, Jesuit Refugee Service.

 

According to different research, 80% of coltan resources are in DRC, where armed groups are controlling the mines and transit routes. This illegal trade has been put on the international agenda because of the known ‘’blood minerals’’. Globally, the politic and military armed groups keep getting benefits from the artisanal sector, either by illegally taxing the production, by remuneration for their ‘’protection’’ to the operators of the sector or by dominating the commercial circuits around the mining plots and the use of coercive means (forced labor in the mine).

 

Figure 2: Makala camp, DRC. El Condifencial.

 

Based on the research published by ALBOAN (a Spanish NGO specialized in the subject), the route of the minerals starts in Africa and ends up in Europe and EE.UU. Usually, the mineral illegally crosses the border towards neighbors countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya in order to avoid the “minerals in conflict’’ lab. From these bordering countries, minerals are transported by ships mainly to Asia (Thailand, India, China, and other parts of the world), where mineral or processing chemist companies transform them into metals. Once in the final destination, the processed minerals are sold in electronic devices and then, they are returned as technology rubbish promoting environmental deterioration!

 

Figure 3: Makala camp, DRC. El Condifencial.

 

Despite its effect on job creation, the artisanal mining activity is considered a ‘’trap of poverty’’: behind the illusionary appearance of an easy economical enrichment in short time, it generates a dynamic of impoverishment. In Kivu, to work in the mines is salvation for displaced people by armed violence. Youth that skipped school, teachers who are not able to support their families, demobilized soldiers and even children, are some of the groups working in mines. Moreover, there is a space for women: they may contribute to the industry, cleaning the minerals. Every tone of coltan is sold in the international market for 400.000$ meanwhile a miner is gaining between 2 and 5 $ per day. Furthermore, the working conditions are very dangerous for the safety and the health of workers. The risk of detachment in the quarries, the use of explosives and respiratory diseases related to humidity in the tunnels and the dust are common problems among the workers.

 

Figure 4: Makala camp, DRC. El Condifencial.

 

The statistics are devastating, it is estimated that, since 1998, 5.4 million people have lost their lives in DRC, -most of them due to preventable diseases-. According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 140 armed groups inactive and more than 13 million people need humanitarian assistance. But can we take some action in front of this magnitude problem? The answer is again affirmative. How it is usual in production processes in capitalism, the alternatives to products that people are consuming massively, are not very known. Despite causing huge damage in some countries, the big companies still continue generating many benefits selling us these products.

Firstly, there is a need to make the life of technology longer. Sometimes, we only want to change our smartphone just for having the latest model. We should raise awareness about the needs that companies and system create to people, and then, to reflect if we really need the thing that the big market wants to sell us. In some other occasions, we also change the entire phone instead of spending time finding which is the ‘’piece’’ that does not work. Moreover, once our devices are not working anymore, it is interesting to think about how can we take advantage of that. For instance, a nice initiative called Repair Café is located in many parts of the world. Repair Café is free-access places where people can meet in order to repair together clothes, bikes, toys, and even technology. So, Turkey or Egypt are some of the Repair Cafés that we can find in the region.

 

Figure 5: number of Repair Café in the entire world. Retrieved from

 

Also, it is interesting to know electronic devices from fair trade because they exist. In the smartphones’ world, we can find the Fairphone; a community who launched a phone made under ethical and fair conditions. Its approach is to make a positive change in materials’ supply chains by developing a framework to better understand the issues, source more responsibly and increase the use of recycled materials. Moreover, they want to close the gap between people and their products. By knowing exactly where stuff comes from and how it is made, people can make informed decisions about what they buy. Furthermore, you can map the journey of the phone in order to track each and every component that they use in order to make the Fairphone.

 

Figure 6: slogan of Fairphone community. Retrieved from

 

As we said before, the problem with the mining activity is a very complex one. It is true that part of the change will be fetterless from the laws, from the accurate regularization of this illegal trade and also, from the exhaustive control of big companies’ activities, but there are more efforts left to make. The people have the power to make the change, if all of us are conscious about how our electronic purchases affect countries, we can contribute to reducing the problem. Consumers and their elected representatives have the opportunity to decisively change the dynamics of the conflict in the Great Lakes Region by focusing international attention on the economic actors of this human rights catastrophe. By demanding transparency and accountability from the world’s largest electronics companies, consumers can change the logic of Congo’s conflict and put an end to the threat of minerals’ conflict.

 

Carla Sala


Sources:

Adrian. (2017). ‘’El coltán: tecnología manchada de sangre y alternativas’’. La Cortina de humo. Retrieved from

Alboan (2019). Tecnología libre de conflicto. Retrieved from

Comisión de Justícia y Paz. (2012). ‘’El sector minero artesanal en el Congo Oriental:

condiciones de los emplazamientos y perspectiva’’. Tecnología libre de conflicto. Retrieved from

El Confidencial. (2018).‘’Las minas abiertas de oro del Congo.’’. El Confidencial.  Retrieved from

Repair Café. (2019). Retrieved from

World Vision. ‘’Democratic Republic of Congo’’. Retrieved from

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