Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How All of Us Are Supporting the Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since the Holocaust

I've decided that I need to learn about conflict minerals: minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold that are (quoting Wikipedia) "mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, notably in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the Congolese National Army and various armed rebel groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda." (Cassiterite, wolframite, and coltan are sources of tin, tungsten, and tantalum, respectively.) Loot from these Congolese mines funds armed groups that have been responsible for millions of deaths and rapes since the beginning of the Second Congo War in the 1990s.

These minerals pass through several hands after they leave the Congo, ultimately finding their way to the world's manufacturers of mobile phones, laptops, mp3 players, and video game consoles: Intel, Apple, HP, Nintendo, Sony, Nokia, and many others. Basically, if you play video games, send text messages, or access the Internet, you are supporting (if only indirectly) the deadliest armed conflict since World War II. I'm not judging you, because I'm as guilty as anyone.

Before I continue, I should point out that, as of 2008, 5.4 million people had died and millions more had been raped or displaced due to the Second Congo War, a war fought, in part, over control to lucrative mineral mines. Though the war technically ended in 2003, the violence continues, as do rampant malnutrition and disease. The Second Congo War (including related postwar violence, hunger, and illness) is, without qualification, the worst thing to happen to human beings on this planet since the Holocaust. But no one pays much attention to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Moving on—One's first instinct upon learning that a product one buys is responsible for untold human rights violations is to stop buying that product. The problem in this situation is that abstaining from the guilty products means withdrawing from industrialized society. Few people who aren't Wendell Berry could swear off computers and mobile phones; and finding electronic devices free of conflict minerals is nearly impossible. Negative reinforcement (i.e. boycotts) won't work. Here are a couple solutions that might:

  • Legislation: Fortunately, a provision (introduced by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas) in the financial regulatory reform bill currently before Congress . . .

    . . . requires any publicly traded company that uses certain minerals to file reports annually with the Securities and Exchange Commission certifying whether the minerals originated in Congo or neighboring countries. It also requires them to report what steps the company took to ensure that the purchase of these minerals did not benefit armed groups in Africa.

    So that's a step in the right direction.

  • Positive Reinforcement: While it would be nearly impossible for consumers to punish offending tech companies, consumers could reward companies that take measure to ensure that their products do not contain conflict minerals. If we are willing to spend a little more or wait a little longer to support companies that eschew conflict minerals, maybe we could create a market for "peace computers" (or "happy computers"—it's the best I can come up with).

I'm in the market for a new laptop. I'd like to buy one that is free of conflict minerals or, at least, one made by a company that has taken steps to ensure that it will no longer support violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Take a few minutes to watch this video from the Enough Project:


Anonymous Dan said...

Thanks for this post. Very informative, and has me thinking. I had not connected the dots to know that the conflict in the Congo had such an influence on our technology!

11:41 AM  
Blogger Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for this... Wow! What a conundrum we are in.

1:45 PM  

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