Minerals in Congo: Technology Can’t Survive Without It

December 13, 2011

Political Theory

The Democratic Republic of Congo possesses 80% of the worlds coltan.  Tantalum is manufactured from coltan, which is a used in manufacturing capacitors.  Capacitors are used in nearly every electronic device, as it is a key element in circuit design.  Without tantalum, companies would not be able to manufacture phones, computers and other electronics.  The beginning of every technology manufacturing chain starts in the mines of Congo.  Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, and their main source of income is through the export of minerals such as coltan.  What is unsettling is the manner in which minerals have been obtained.

During the war in Rwanda, refugees flooded Congo and this brought much conflict within the country.  Rebels from Rwanda also moved to Congo and began to control the mines. They would force children to work the mines, and would monitor the mines with their AK47’s. This could be considered a case of dirty hands, where consumers are responsible for the tension in Congo over their mines.  Companies like Intel and Apple have used minerals that originated in Congo. By purchasing their products, are we responsible for the implications of the manufacturing of those products?  Rebel groups compete and fight over mines in Congo, and children have been used for labor.  The problem is complicated, but buying from Congo only prolongs their issues. At the same time, abandoning Congo as a source of these minerals could have negative effects.  Taking away their main source of income could prove to be detrimental.

Recently, laws have been created to aid the conflict.  Companies are being forced to trace their source of materials, and publicly state if they are using conflict minerals.  Companies then put pressure on the Congolese government to enforce rules on mines.  At mines, kids are not allowed to work and rebels are not allowed to oversee the work being done.  In fact, this law is starting to create change in Congo.  Many leaders in Congo realized that without a buyer, their minerals were useless.  I’m glad to see that we are trying to avoid fueling a complicated problem in Congo.

This issue has been completely under reported, which is very concerning.  I wonder how many US citizens realize that some of their electronics were manufactured using conflict minerals? The production of our electronics have come at the cost of Congolese conflict and many deaths as a result.  Is this a case of myth and illusion?  Do American media purposely omit these types of stories? This type of propaganda could give consumers the illusion that they aren’t contributing to conflict abroad.  It makes it easier for big companies to use conflict minerals without getting any media attention for it.  It promotes capitalism and would keep consumers unaware of their impact. An illusion where ignorance is bliss.  Because sadly, we have all contributed to the mess in Congo, and nobody wants to know that.  But without any media attention, the illusion remains the conflict continues.

If any, what kind of solutions are there? Are consumers responsible for conflicts abroad?

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4 Comments on “Minerals in Congo: Technology Can’t Survive Without It”

  1. asgersh Says:

    We as consumers are the ones creating the problem, but without the media shedding light on issues like this consumers would not think to do the research on where the materials in their electronics are coming from. This issue seems very similar to the issue of conflict diamonds that went on for years before the media started to inform the public on it. The truth behind it is big business with all the money and resources at their disposal can have great influence on what is reported as well as politics. I believe that a solution to this problem would be stricter regulations and monitoring agencies that can make sure that companies are not using materials from conflict zones. Electronics businesses should see that making a little less money is worth saving lives on a large scale. I also believe that the stories of the problems with conflict diamonds are still in the public’s mind so mass reporting of this conflict material could have a profound effect on getting these electronic companies to use materials from other sources.

    • Steve Dougherty Says:

      I agree that the media should be presenting this as more of an issue, and that perhaps regulations should be put in place to prohibit sale of items with components or materials that used child labor. I find it interesting to note how this “conflict noun” phenomenon would behave differently under a Libertarian approach. It’s just one example of how people don’t do enough research into the things they buy to prevent abuses like this from happening. It’s hard enough to find out which feature set and price point to select, and determining against a company’s wishes how it makes its products is very difficult indeed.

  2. akmcoy Says:

    I also think the media should draw more attention to this topic, because I think that would act as a catalyst to fixing the problem. Your part about the minerals and mines being pointless without a buyer could also be a key to turning things around. Maybe if we put more pressure and stress on companies like Apple and Intel monitor their supply more strictly, the problem could be averted too. Ultimately, they are the closest our society gets to interacting with these mines, and if they work hard to curb the poor habits seen in the mines, that may be the best hope to impeding the problem. It’s a really hard situation to read about, and to stop, but it has to start somewhere. These corporations have more power than we realize since they drive the necessity to mine the minerals… They should use that power to change the culture of the mines and stop the unfortunate acts taking place.

  3. Brian Hall Says:

    Personally, I don’t understand how anyone could be ignorant of the fact that Western society is inherently built upon the systematic exploitation and abuse of foreign workers. If you’ve been willing to ignore the information that is readily available for anyone motivated enough to visit the library, then it is not the media’s fault for not exposing what has been going on for centuries. America has many skeletons in its closet, the most obvious being the importation of African slaves and the genocide of Native Americans, but what most people probably don’t know or care about is that we currently are (and for well over a century have been) exploiting cheap labor in Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe. While we may no longer have child labor in our country (what a triumph of social progress, hurrah!), the child labor has only been exported so that we don’t have to see it or even acknowledge that it exists anymore.

    I recently watched a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner” which details the shitty living conditions in rural Bolivia, wherein children often have to support their families by working in silver mines. Certainly electronics components are a large source of exploitation; the rare elements required for the manufacture of technology are mostly acquired from foreign third-world countries. But the disturbing reality is that virtually every product sold in this country, as well as in Europe or the rich Asian nations (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore), is largely produced from materials practically stolen from other countries, and assembled by the people who live in those countries for our benefit. It is not the consumer’s fault to not give a shit about where their TV came from, or how their shirt was manufactured. It is the fault of society at large. Each individual in our country is part of the larger system of exploitation, and frankly there is nothing any one person can do to stop it. If we as a nation are willing to accept a return to pre-industrial conditions, the exploitation will stop, but realitically that’s not going to happen.

    Certainly one could stop supporting the corporations behind the exploitation, but then that would mean essentially completely giving up technology. Where else are we going to get Tantalum and Niobium? Reality is a bitter pill to swallow.

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