Your Computer is Killing the Congo

Can you do anything to stop the trade of blood minerals?

Getty Images
Getty Images

It’s easy to forget how the products we use are tied to stories of the hands that made them.

The buttons on our jackets, sewn on by a teenage girl from China’s Sichuan Province who works 16 hours a day to pay for her younger brother’s school fees.

The bananas in our cereal, harvested by a family of Ecuadorian laborers—a mother, a father, their young children. We want to believe that most of these stories end well, that free trade, on balance, means more progress. But of course, that’s not always the case.

Here’s one story you’d probably rather not know about. The minerals used to make your cell phone, your iPod, the computer you’re using to read this article, are tied to a horrific conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; in the last decade, it has killed more than the genocides and wars in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Iraq combined.

Call them “blood minerals” or “conflict minerals.” They are the ores that produce tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, and they are fueling a war that has left more than 5 million dead.

The Congo Conflict Minerals Act, a bill introduced last month by Sens. Sam Brownback, Dick Durbin and Russ Feingold, aims to suppress this trade by making the supply chain more transparent. The bill, if passed, would map rebel-controlled mines and require U.S.-registered companies whose products use minerals from Congo and neighboring countries to report the mines of origin to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

It’s a victory for those who seek to end the trade in conflict minerals, a movement reminiscent of earlier campaigns against the similarly destructive traffic in “blood diamonds” that were at the heart of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1990s. Their logic is simple: Deny rebel-controlled mining areas a market for their product, and you remove the economic incentive for war.

So how do conflict minerals make their way from Congo to western consumer electronics companies? The chain starts in eastern Congo, with artisanal miners, men and children who are often forced to pay arbitrary “taxes” to various armed groups and live on slave wages, carving uncertain tunnels into mountains with iron picks, hammers and their bare hands. Deep underground, they sift through mud and rock for valuable ore, much of which is smuggled across the border into Rwanda or Uganda, taken by truck to ports in Tanzania and Kenya, and loaded onto cargo ships bound for Asia, where it is smelted into metal, sold and used by electronics companies to make the microprocessors that power your favorite gadgets.

The mining of the minerals is dangerous enough, but the real casualties are the countless civilians caught in the middle of half a dozen armed groups that vie for control over the lucrative trade in black market minerals, including, at various times, the Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese armies. These groups are responsible for murder, torture, mutilation, the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and countless other human rights atrocities.