Wednesday, Apr 23rd

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You are here: C. W. Prather Conflict Minerals and Cell Phones Leave Bloody Trail
Cell phones. Laptops. MP3 players. Fueling an ugly, vicious civil war in the Congo. Every time users purchase a new cell phone, they are inadvertently shelling out money for Colombo-tantalite,or Coltan, a black metallic ore. Coltan is another name for minerals from which the element Tantalum is extracted. Tantalum is necessary for the manufacturing of “pinhead” capacitors which are used in myriad electronic products around the world. The Coltan minerals are excavated from deposits buried at the heart of the war in the Eastern region of the Congo nation.

According to human rights officials, the latest Congolese Civil War is one of the bloodiest conflicts since 1998. It is estimated that 3.5 million people have perished at the hands of armed thugs and rebel militias. Countless others have been violated, mutilated and abandoned, receiving little help or support from the outside world. Many experts have increasingly pointed toward the mineral trade – and specifically the mining of “blood Coltan” – as the single strongest force escalating the conflict in that region.

“Coltan and other conflict minerals are the motivation for the presence of soldiers,” said Amy Ernst, an American aid worker living in North Kivu, a small province in the Congo where the Coltan mines are located. “The [rebel] forces are raping people left and right, and [the place is] completely uncontrolled,” she added. “Thousands are displaced anytime there’s confrontation –women are raped, civilians are killed, and everything they own – houses, farms, and animals – are stolen.”

There are no industrialized mines; therefore, many of the soldiers force Congolese civilians to dig for Coltan manually – usually at gunpoint. Those who refuse to do the work are murdered, their families brutalized. And the weapon of choice for the armed militias is rape, as an instrument of terror.  Age is no barrier.  82-year-old women have been violated and younger women have been forced to endure multiple assaults, as many as 8 at a time.  And for those who agree to work --- even for a day’s worth of hard labor, diggers receive on average less than a dollar a day.
“Everyone is using Coltan to fund their cause; the competition over the mineral wealth in north and south Kivu is a main instigator,” explained Annie Dunnebacke, a campaign worker for the nonprofit group, Global Witness. “It has become one of the major reasons to keep on fighting. If money from the minerals was to abate, it would have a significant effect.”

The international high demand for Coltan is the driving force behind the militias’ thirst for the mineral. Ernst explained that this tenuous journey for “blood minerals” involves making several pit stops to seven different locations in Africa. First, the Coltan travels from excavation sites to Goma and Bukavu, then to key capitals of North Kivu and South Kivu, respectively, where businessmen purchase it from the militias and pass it along to traders known as “comptoirs.” The comptoirs then carry it by road through neighboring Rwanda to East African ports in Kenya and Tanzania.  

Coltan moves from the Congo to smelting sites in East Asia, particularly in China, where it is joined by Coltan mined in Australia, Canada, and Brazil. There, the Tantalum is extracted.  According to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey, less than ten percent of Tantalum imported into the U.S. came from the Congo. China, however, was listed as a top exporter to the U.S. of Tantalum. Officials at many of their smelting factories refuse to perform checks on their providers, so they are free to use Coltan ore. The U.S. Geological Survey noted that more Congolese Tantalum finds its way into American electronic products each year.

Many human rights organizations are targeting the smelter operations in an effort to regulate the global Coltan trade, but more needs to be done regarding the companies which purchase the Tantalum from the smelters. Often, their public relations departments boast that they are seeking to eliminate conflict minerals from their products, though not sufficiently enough. Patrick Alley, Global Witness Director, said “it is not good enough” for companies to stipulate that they buy only from licensed exporters. “They know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups,” he said. Strict guidelines and regulations are needed.

According to guidelines published by “The Enough Project,” currently it is only possible to trace Tantalum to identifiable smelter sites. By following the proposed guidelines, the smelting facilities would be responsible to report which particular countries provided the ore, including Coltan. Other NGO’s, including Global Witness, have published similar due diligence guidelines.   

This past July, specific guidelines were drafted into the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act after extensive lobbying on the part of Global Witness, The Enough Project, and several other groups. The new guidelines would require companies to trace Coltan and other conflict minerals more vigorously.

Immediately after the law’s passage, Hewlett-Packard pledged its support in a press release, stating that “we believe this provision will help provide much-needed transparency in companies’ supply chains, reduce the purchase and use of conflict minerals known to fund the ongoing armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, helping to reduce some of the factors that have contributed to the civil war there.” Other high-tech companies, including Intel and Apple, soon followed with statements in support of the legislation.

Today, companies and NGO’s are effectively working with the Securities Exchange Commission to outline more specific guidelines that would give companies a better idea of “due diligence” –and how much it may cost the company if they don’t follow the guidelines. It is unclear what effect this will have.  When contacted by The Suit Magazine, both Hewlett-Packard and Intel declined to comment on how they have interpreted the new regulations.

There is also a marketing angle. “A company would get a huge bump if it were able to market the fact that its product was the only one that was conflict-mineral free,” said Darren Fenwick, senior manager for governmental affairs at The Enough Project. “The company would only have to exercise due diligence.” Whether a financial incentive or an ethical standard, something must be done to stop the horror. 

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