Conflict Minerals and Blood Tech

by Joey deVilla on June 27, 2010

conflict minerals

Say the word “silicon” and chances are, you’ll think of technology. After all, silicon’s relationship to tech – it’s part of what makes transistors and chips – has been part of popular culture for decades, from the “Silicon chip inside her head” opening line from the Boomtown Rats’ song I Don’t Like Mondays to “Silicon Valley” as the nickname for the suburban expanse between San Francisco and San Jose.

Silicon is only part of the equation, however. The chips that drive our computers, mobile phones and assorted electronica are actually a “layer cake” consisting not only of silicon, but also oxide and metal.

There’s also the matter of key non-chip components like capacitors, which momentarily store an electrical charge. They’re made of thin layers of conductive metal separated by a thin layer of insulator. We use their “buffering” capabilities to smooth out “spiky” electrical currents, filter through signal interference, pick out a specific frequency from a spectrum of them and other “cleaning up” operations.

One of the metals used in the manufacture of capacitors is tantalum, which you can extract from a metal ore called coltan, whose name is short for “columbite-tantalite”. About 20% of the world’s supply of tantalum comes from Congo, and proceeds of from the sale of coltan are how their warlords – the scum driving the world’s most vicious conflict, and who’ve turned the country into the rape capital of the world – are bankrolled.

Nichloas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about metals like tantalum purchased from Congo – conflict metals – in an op-ed yesterday:

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these “conflict minerals” out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia.

He also points to the Enough Project’s latest video, which used humour and a reference to the “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” TV commercials to draw the public’s attention to conflict metals and to encourage them to contact electronics manufacturers and ask them to be more vigilant when sourcing components:

The Enough Project says that auditing component supply chains at the smelters to see whether the metal was sources from “clean” places like Australia or Canada instead of lining the pockets of Congolese warlords would add about one cent to the price of a cellphone, and that this figure originates from within the industry. I’d happily pay a thousand times that for each of my devices – a mere ten bucks – to ensure that I wasn’t bankrolling rape and murder.

I’ll close this post with the closing paragraph from Kristof’s op-ed:

We may be able to undercut some of the world’s most brutal militias simply by making it clear to electronics manufacturers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to enrich sadistic gunmen. No phone or tablet computer can be considered “cool” if it may be helping perpetuate one of the most brutal wars on the planet.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Costas June 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

USA should invade Congo in order to establish democracy, just like they said they were doing with Iraq.

2 mensch July 28, 2010 at 2:55 am

Thanks for that interesting article Joey. I totally agree with you: if it would cost more but there’d be some insurance included that the materials used are conflict-free I’d rather pay more. But hey, that’s just one single aspect of whats going wrong, there are other factors too: like the exploitation of workers in China, through Apple-subcontractor Foxconn, resulting in the suicides of about twenty people, due to unbearable workload and pressure.
Or did you know that about 85 % profits of an Iphone/Ipad/Ipod produced goes to Apple USA, whereas the manufactoring of the same device takes place in 120 countries (!), the only thing that really comes from Apple is the design and the software (which is already outsourced to Hungary too), the whole processing etc. is done elsewhere, for peanuts, while Apple has none of the risk they get all the profits.

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