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.
What should electronics companies be doing to stem the violence? Cell phone manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, Apple and Nokia have long had official policies against the use of conflict minerals in their products. However, supply chains are notoriously difficult to trace; conflict minerals and the electronic components that use them may pass through dozens of middlemen before reaching American consumers, and most manufacturers simply take their suppliers' word for it. (This is particularly problematic given that much of the ore is used for parts made in China, a country hardly known for its transparency.)
This is why NGOs such as the Enough Project, launched by the Center for American Progress, and Global Witness are calling for the new bill to provide for independent audits. However, audits take money, will and capacity that quite simply does not exist in most poor countries. Imperfect monitoring mechanisms have meant that nine years after the Kimberly Certification Process, blood diamonds still seep across Africa's porous borders.
There are no quick or certain solutions. With complex origins in the Rwandan genocide and the long absence of a functioning government in the region, ending the conflict, which has involved, at various times, two dozen different rebel groups, armies and their various factions, is much more than a matter of cleaning up the supply chain. Moreover, complete sanctions and boycotts would likely do more harm than good, a recent UN report concluded. Two million informal workers and their families rely on their earnings from the mines, however meager, and armed groups, although motivated by greed, are also often motivated by necessity. The poverty, disease and starvation that would result from walling off the trade completely would be as devastating as the carnage of bullets and machetes.
So, no, there’s no need to give up your cell phone or laptop. But perhaps you can use your technology to stay on top of the legislative process and advocate for stricter regulations and more transparency around the trade in conflict minerals. The result might be a little less blood on all our hands.
Jennifer Brea is a freelance writer.