Your laptop [and mine] are fueling DR Congo’s civil war

The device you are reading this on, whether you are a Mac or PC fan, is very likely helping to fuel the ongoing civil war in the Congo. Most of the electronic devices we take for granted use a substance called Columbite-Tantalite, which is commonly shortened to coltan. The great thing about coltan is that this plain looking metallic powder can hold large capacitive charges when refined. This makes coltan a vital ingredient in everything from cell phones to video games. In fact, coltan is credited as being the key component in the current digital revolution, with even the Department of Defense relying on this mineral for the majority of its smart bombs, jet engines and electronic gear crucial to modern warfare.

The lion’s share of coltan is currently being mined in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) which is experiencing what some refer to as “Africa’s First World War”. The current conflict has been going on since the 1990s and is actually a source of profit to a number of multinational  corporations,  which profit from the warfare. Experts estimate that coltan from the DR Congo accounts  for between 64% and 84% of the world supply.  Income from the trade in DR Congo’s precious metals is used to fuel the war, with both sides using the income to buy weapons, employ more soldiers, etc.

There is little desire to end the trade in minerals. Many companies stand to lose a fortune, and the miners are desperate for income, with the average Congolese income currently $750 a year.  Miners work naked in open pits to bring minerals to the surface, where they are panned in much the same manner used by California’s Gold Rush miners. Miners provide their own flashlights with batteries, of questionable worth. working deep in the earth with no protection.  Frequently, they are robbed by local army, rebels and police forces.

The civil war is technically over, with the different parties having agreed to a common government that would take control. Unsurprisingly, there have been problems with the various groups complying. This situation is aggravated by the interference of Rwanda and Uganda, which support various ethnic groups. Crimes committed during the war are truly horrific, with the use of rape as a war tactic and even cannibalism of indigenous Pygmies who are seen as “subhuman” by many. The belief exists among some that eating the flesh of a Pygmy grants magical powers.

The civil war is also severely impacting local populations of mountain gorillas, one of the more endangered mammals on the planet. The gorillas are slaughtered for their meat, which is referred to as “bush meat”.

There have been efforts to curb some of effects of buying coltran, including registering local smelters and “bag and tag” at the mines themselves. The difficulty with these programs is that corruption is rampant among local officials (thus police robbing miners), making it nearly impossible to be whether compliance programs are substantive convenient fictions.

To give a reference to the scale of the problem, when Sony first introduced the Playstation in 2000, the cost of coltan jumped from $49 per pound to $275 per pound, fueling a rush to dig more of the substance out of the ground.

Corporations involved in the electronics business (Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Sony, etc.) complain that it is nearly impossible to figure out which is “blood” coltan and which is not. Activists in Europe did attempt a boycott of cell phones using coltan from the DR Congo. But these efforts so far not caught on or had much impact.

With so many disturbing features to this story, we should also consider that many of the coltan miners are also minors.  The implication is clear: Children of wealthy (by African standards) children receive Xboxes, mp3 players and other electronic gadgets to entertain themselves with, devices that only exist because children in poverty are sent down into hellish mine pits at risk of their lives and health. How many western children would still be asking for the latest ipod, ipad or video game if they knew what torture had been inflicted on children in another part of the world?

The trade in “blood diamonds” has been greatly reduced as a result of a public awareness campaign that educated the general public on how the stones had been obtained. Women (and men) of developed nations began to feel guilty about flaunting their precious stones when they could not be sure how they had been obtained. If a move to boycott coltan derived devices were to mean that laptops doubled in price, would the general public be “up” for that? The other option is to pretend to ourselves that we have never read this (or any other article on the subject) article and clack away happily so we can continue to write articles like this one. The ubiquity of electronic devices means that none of us is superior, none are blameless, and no one gets to preach to those too ill-informed to know better than to support a blood soaked industry. Personally, I wrote this on a laptop, with a cell phone in one pocket and an mp3 player in another, while my flat screen TV was on in the background. So the guilt includes me.