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Conflict minerals

Smartphones: Blood stains at our fingertips Add to ...

On April 11, 2009, NDP MP Paul Dewar’s plane touched down in what is sometimes referred to as the rape capital of the world: The Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was there to talk about a mining industry that has helped finance a vicious war that has left some seven million people dead since 1998. The voracious international appetite is centered on an obscure mineral, coltan, which many Canadians have never heard of and yet would not be able to live without.

To see the other side of that war, Mr. Dewar could have remained in Canada and taken a trip to the nearest mall. In the next few weeks, millions of electronics will be yanked off store shelves during the busy holiday shopping season – computers, smart phones, electronic book-readers. Almost every single one of the gadgets Canadians purchase will, in turn, help extend Congo’s misery, because inside the circuitry of those gadgets is coltan.

Coltan has become one of the world’s most sought-after materials because it is used to create tantalum, a key ingredient in electronic circuitry. The global tantalum capacitor market is worth about $2-billion (U.S.) annually. You’ll find them in computers, cell phones, home appliances and myriad other electronic goods.

“I’d like to see that when my kid buys an iPhone or an iPod Touch – any of these technologies – that I can and any Canadian can rest assured that they’re rape-free,” says Mr. Dewar, who has just tabled the Trade in Conflict Minerals Act with Liberal Party support. The act would pressure companies to ensure the raw materials they purchase don’t end up putting money in the pockets of warlords. But the proposed law’s future is likely also dependent on Canadian consumers’ willingness to pay a few dollars more for computers that aren’t built using conflict minerals -- something that’s far from certain.

Whereas blood diamonds have shamed many of the world’s biggest miners into more ethical practices, the notion of blood tantalum has so far had no such effect. Not only are most consumers unaware of the mineral or its background, but there are currently no reliable means of ensuring that the tablet computer you just purchased wasn’t made using conflict coltan.

The U.S. government is leading a push to embarrass the world’s biggest coltan purchasers into cleaning up their act. The Dodd-Frank law, a sweeping Wall Street reform act that leverages the might of the Securities Exchange Commission and is expected to take effect in the next few months, contains a clause that would pressure companies to say where they’re buying minerals such as coltan.

About 80 per cent of the world’s coltan is in Africa, and the vast majority of that store resides in war-torn Eastern Congo. With an estimated $25-trillion in potential value, Congo is, in terms of untapped mineral wealth, perhaps the richest country on Earth. However the country’s mineral trade is a complex and violent web. Rebel groups from within the Congo and neighbouring countries have set up shop around the coltan mines, sometimes with the implicit support of the local military – which experts note are sometimes little more than criminal warlords in uniform.

Numerous government and human rights groups have drawn a direct line between coltan mining profits and the ongoing atrocities in the region, including dismemberment and gang-rape.

“This obscure mineral has had the distinction of effectively becoming a kind of blood diamond of the digital age,” professor Jeffery Mantz of George Mason University wrote in a 2008 Social Anthropology article exploring Congolese coltan mining.

As with the diamond trade, there are some potential solutions to the conflict-coltan problem, but their implementation is far from assured. For example, manufacturers could be forced to declare where their raw materials are coming from, or to implement a fair-trade program such as some coffee producers have done. In part, the clauses in the Dodd-Frank act seek to impose some of these solutions on companies – and because, unlike in Canada, there exists a countrywide securities regulator in the U.S. to enforce the law, hardware manufacturers are taking it seriously.

In theory, under the proposed law, suppliers who adhere to ethical practices will be able to market their wares as conflict-free – a potentially effective marketing strategy. But as in the case of fair-trade coffee, such initiatives are limited by the number of companies willing to buy in, and the number of consumers willing to pay extra for the product. However the coltan trade is more difficult to clean up partly because of the lawless nature of mining in the Congo and partly because of the general public’s ignorance of the commodity’s use in most modern technology.

There are other large deposits of the mineral in countries such as Australia. But Australian “conflict-free” coltan comes at a higher price, adding to the final retail cost of a high-end personal computer or cellphone. As such, Australian mines have largely been unable to compete with Congolese operations. In fact, the presence of “conflict-free” coltan has in some ways made the conflict variety more difficult to detect.

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