Birth of a Consumer Movement
Everyone reading this essay has a personal connection to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s because four minerals essential to the production of our electronic devices are extracted there in large quantities. Tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold have enabled some incredible technological advances in devices that most of us use every day, such as game consoles, laptop computers, and mobile phones. Tantalum is a particularly rare and valuable mineral that engineers use to create small, lightweight capacitors for mobile devices. In addition to the making of tin cans, tin is essential to the production of solder on electronic circuit boards. Tungsten is a heavy, dense mineral with many uses, including drill bits, golf club heads, and the vibrating mechanisms in mobile phones. And gold is often used in electronic components because it conducts electricity well and does not corrode.
I was born in Congo and lived there until I was 21. As a student activist, I suffered persecution and fled, seeking political asylum in the United Kingdom. My commitment to social justice continues to inspire my work. The situation in Congo has worsened since I left two decades ago. The civil war started there in 1996 and has since killed more than five million of my countrypeople. The conflict is centered in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, which, not coincidentally, are also where the bulk of Congo’s extraordinary mineral wealth can be found. In the Kivus, armed factions ravage towns and villages, killing innocent civilians. These armed groups include rebel militias along with Congolese National Army. All these factions raise money by trading in so-called conflict minerals.
Ironically, the digital technology for which so much Congolese blood has been spilled is the same technology that brought the awful situation in Congo to our attention in the first place. Thanks to our connected devices, we become global citizens and learn more about each other’s lives, political situations, and struggles, including those in Congo. Yet the Congolese people pay a heavy price for our ever-increasing appetite for digital technology. In eastern Congo right now, armed militias force people to work in the mines for little or no pay. Many miners are paid a dollar per day, half the typical earnings of a small-scale farmer. Children as young as ten are forced to work against their will. In the shafts, health and safety are nonexistent. Miners work underground without proper breathing equipment, and some die of respiratory problems.
Rape as a weapon of war has become entrenched in the psyche of some of the armed groups. They rape more than 400,000 women every year, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. It is no coincidence that sexual violence is prevalent in places like eastern Congo where high mineral concentrations exist. Armed groups use rape to ensure their access to the mines that finance their activities. The effects of rape are so devastating to the morale of local communities that they effectively suppress opposition.
Once extracted, the raw ore is transported by land and air through neighboring countries, mainly Rwanda and Uganda. It eventually reaches East Asia, where smelting companies refine the ore into tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold. At this point it becomes very difficult to trace the provenance of these metals. They are sold on the open market, where multinational electronics companies buy huge quantities for use in computers, game consoles, mobile phones, and a host of other devices that are sold all over the world.
In November 2011 there were elections in Congo. Most national and international observers, including the Catholic Church and the Carter Center, declared them undemocratic. The tainted elections convinced me that Congo would not see the return of political legitimacy and the rule of law for the foreseeable future. I felt a personal sense of urgency to help find long-lasting solutions to the problems we face as a nation. This soul-searching exercise coincided with an invitation to speak at TEDxExeter in April 2012. It was a rare opportunity to raise awareness about the situation in Congo and to rally support for concrete actions to help end violent conflict there.
I talked about the fighting in Congo and noted the strange paradox that the phones in our pockets are instruments of both freedom and oppression. I received an outpouring of support after my talk, which encouraged me to found a pressure group called Congo Calling. It has two main goals: to raise international awareness about the role of conflict minerals in fueling the war in Congo, and to establish mechanisms that will allow Congolese communities to benefit from their natural wealth.
Our campaign aims to prevent illegal armed groups from gaining access to the money that has allowed them to carry on and commit atrocities. Congo Calling works to promote more equitable resource distribution in Congo by convincing technology companies and policy makers to end the conflict-mineral trade. To that end we are building a strong coalition of academics, artists, elected officials faith leaders, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), student groups, and technology executives.
Our initial aims include the following: we believe that sympathetic governments should vigorously regulate mineral-supply chains. Whether they are armed factions, corporations, or corrupt individuals, any group or person who exploits the natural wealth and the people of Congo for their own gain should face sanctions. Electronics manufacturers should produce phones using Congolese minerals that have been certified as conflict free. Finally, consumers should be fully aware of the situation in Congo so that they can make informed decisions about the electronic devices that they buy.
At the moment there is no clear fair-trade solution to the conflict-mineral issue. However, some electronics companies have started using their market power to establish clean-mineral supply chains with the goal of reducing armed conflict in Congo. For example, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition is an alliance of leading manufacturers that have committed to responsible mineral-sourcing practices. Other leading stakeholders include governments and NGOs such as Global Witness and the Enough Project, which publishes a useful consumer guide to the struggle against conflict minerals.
In the United States, the Dodd–Frank Act of 2010 contains language that requires electronics companies to verify and disclose the sources of minerals used in their products. In particular, the law requires supply-chain traceability audits by independent third parties, and it requires companies to report the results of these audits to the public and to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations, and other international organizations have also published a great deal of useful research and guidance for companies and consumers seeking responsible supply chains for minerals from Congo and other conflict-affected regions.
These efforts have yet to eliminate the conflict-mineral trade, but they are a start. Congo Calling’s vision is for a peaceful and just Congo, where people can live in stable and prosperous communities, where children are not enlisted, where women are not raped as an instrument of war, and where miners work for fair wages in humane conditions. Mobile phones are currently part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution in that we can all use our mobile phones to spread news and spur action that will one day restore peace and justice to Congo. (You can find Congo Calling on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @CongoCalling and @BandiMbubi.)
As consumers, we need to ask questions about how our technologies are sourced. Just as we demand fair-trade food and clothes, we should demand fair-trade phones that will allow communities in Congo to start benefiting from their immense natural wealth. We all have the ability to make change happen. We can use our mobile phones to tell someone, write to someone, sign a petition, and talk about the situation in Congo. I firmly believe that when awareness grows, action will follow.