Is Your Tech Bloodstained? Gadget Makers Forced to Look at Links to Congo War

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

Is Your Tech Bloodstained? Gadget Makers Forced to Look at Links to Congo War


Byline: Peter Svensson Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Does that smart phone in your pocket contribute to rape and murder in the depths of Africa? Soon, you'll know: A new U.S. law requires companies to certify whether their products contain minerals from rebel-controlled mines in Congo and surrounding countries.

It's a move aimed at starving the rebels of funds and encouraging them to lay down their arms.

But experts doubt the law will stop the fighting. Furthermore, they say, it could deprive hundreds of thousands of desperately poor Congolese of their incomes and disrupt the economy of an area that's struggling for stability after more than decade of war.

"For many, many people, it's the only livelihood they have," said Sara Geenen, a researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who just returned from a trip to the Kivu provinces in eastern Congo.

At issue are three industrial metals -- tin, tantalum and tungsten -- and gold. Tin is used in the solder that joins electronic components together. Tantalum's main use is in capacitors, a vital component in electronics. Tungsten has many uses, including light-bulb filaments and the heavy, compact mass that makes cell phones vibrate.

Exports of these metals from eastern Congo have been the subject of a campaign by nonprofit advocacy groups for a few years, one that's borne fruit with the addition of a "Conflict Minerals" provision to the financial-regulation legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday.

A recent YouTube video modeled after Apple Inc.'s well-known ads is titled "I'm a Mac a and I've Got a Dirty Secret." The video says "a lot" of the world production of the four metals comes from Congo, though the contribution is relatively small.

While Congo has vast reserves, poverty and war mean most of the mining and processing is done by hand, so production is slow. The country produced 5 percent of the world's tin supply in 2008, according to tin research institute ITRI. The figure for tantalum ore, a rarer mineral, is higher, but the main sources for world supply are in Brazil and Australia.

Even though Congo's production is small by world standards, the minerals constitute much of the economic activity in eastern Congo.

Advocacy groups, the United Nations and academic researchers such as Geenen agree that the mines fund rebel groups, homegrown militias and rogue elements of the Congolese army.

But the academics say the advocacy groups have been overselling the link between the mines and violence, such as when John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project, told "60 Minutes" last year that minerals are the "root cause" of the fighting.

"The fight is not a fight over the minerals," said Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who studies and visits Congo. "The minerals are used to fund some of the fighting, but it's not a fight for control of the mines."

More important causes of the fighting, she said, are land rights and the status of the refugees and militias from neighboring Rwanda who flooded into eastern Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. About 5 million people, mainly civilians, have died in off-and-on fighting in Congo since then, and armed groups have been accused of systematic mass rape.

Sasha Lezhnev, a consultant to the Enough Project and the director of an organization that tries to rehabilitate child soldiers, agrees that the fighting wasn't originally about the minerals. …

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