The long war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) may have ended officially. However, ongoing conflict, fueled by the sale of minerals that facilitate the use of electronic equipment, has led to the displacement of 100,000 people and mass rapes and killings in the eastern part of this country in recent months.
There are four minerals that enable cell phones, computers, iPods and other electronic equipment to operate: tin, which is used in electronic equipment as a solder on circuit boards; tantalum (often called coltan), which is used to store electricity in capacitors; tungsten, which is used to make cell phones vibrate, and gold, which is another component in electronic equipment. Rebel groups engaged in the conflict reportedly earned US$185 million last year from selling these minerals to middlemen, who then disguise the illegal purchase and sell them onto larger firms legally. Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC), based in the United Kingdom, denies that it purchases questionably-supplied minerals from Congo-Kinshasa and claims that an industry-wide initiative begun on July 1 now traces the source of these minerals to prevent illegal trade.
AMC and its competitors have a vested interest in not being sanctioned because of the United Nations resolution forbidding the support of illegal Congolese armed groups through the illicit trade of natural resources. Moreover, a bill introduced in April by Senator Sam Brownback, the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 (S.891), calls on the U.S. government to support Congolese efforts to monitor and stop commercial activities involving the illegal sale of natural resources such as the ones used in electronics as well as support for Congolese efforts to develop mechanisms to better provide transparency in the sale of these resources. The legislation further calls for the UN and its members to create a map identifying mineral-rich zones in Congo-Kinshasa and the presence of illegal armed groups. Finally, the legislation directs the State Department to provide guidance for companies involved in the trade of these commodities.
Not even the NGOs that are campaigning for ending illegal trade in the 3 Ts and gold, such as the ENOUGH Campaign, want to end all trade in these minerals from Congo-Kinshasa. Rather, they call for a Kimberly-like process such as the one aimed at ending the trade in blood diamonds. Current legislation and existing mechanisms to prevent illegal resource trading, as well as encouragement of voluntary corporate cooperation in ending such trade, must be pursued if the current tragic situation is to be reversed.
As we each use our BlackBerry or iPod or laptop, we need to remember that real people are suffering for our convenience. We don’t need to halt the march of technological progress, but we do need to keep in mind that it is coming at a high price for some people in this world. And that should spur us to take action to ease their burden even as our lives are made easier by the machines these resources make possible.