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Valuing Phones in Blood

September 5, 2010

Sara Birkenthal
Valuing Phones in Blood

My summer internship at Human Rights Watch (HRW) exposed me to a number of human rights issues. However, the issue of "blood cell phones," cell phones containing Tantalum extracted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was one that affected me most personally and one in which American electronic consumers play an active role. Many Americans are familiar with the phrase “blood diamonds” popularized by a seemingly endless series of news stories, as well as by the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonard DiCaprio. As a result, we often think twice before purchasing diamonds. The phrase, “blood cell phones,” however, is less familiar, and we do not yet think twice before purchasing cell phones and other electronic devices.

It is therefore important to provide some relevant background information on this issue. Our cell phones, as well as most other electronic devices, contain a combination of Columbite and Tantalite, known as Tantalum (commonly referred to as Coltan). Although Tantalum is certainly mined in other countries, according to Robin Browne of the website Alternatives, approximately 80 percent of the world’s Tantalum is mined in the DRC, where the mining of this element has fueled vicious civil wars since 1996. According to a recent New York Times editorial by Nick Kristof, “Eastern Congo is the site of the most lethal conflict since World War II, and is widely described as the ‘rape capital of the world.’ The war has claimed 5.4 million deaths as of April 2007, with the toll mounting by 45,000 a month.”

In 2006, Global Witness, an international NGO that works to “break the break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses worldwide” investigated the process of mining this deadly rock. According to a report released by the organization, miners may only be paid up to five dollars per day for the dangerous work of mining Tantalum.

The mining of Tantalum in the DRC puts the lives of not only humans, but animals at risk, as well. Most of the rock in the DRC exists in Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla. As the mining industry has increased with the increase in worldwide electronics consumption, the number of gorillas in the DRC has decreased by 90 percent in the past five years. Unfortunately, this number will continue to rise unless the international community takes a more active stand on the issue.

What You Can Do

While no one is asking that you give up your gadget(s) of choice, there are some steps that you can take to lessen your role in the international Tantalum trade:

Recycle your cell phones and encourage your friends and family to do the same. If we recycle our cell phones and increase the supply of Tantalum, we will decrease the demand for this rock.

• Invest in electronics made with Australian Tantalum, rather than Congolese Tantalum, and pressure big-time companies, such as Apple, Intel, and Research in Motion (which produces the Blackberry) to do the same. Use this Commit to Purchase Conflict-Free Products web form to email the 21 biggest electronics companies and urge them to make their products conflict free.

• Check out this video on You Tube. Put together by a group of Hollywood actors, it suggests that both Macs and PCs are sometimes made with “conflict minerals.”

Contact your Representative and make sure he or she knows that you support efforts to put pressure on neighboring Rwanda, which has dealt extensively in the trade of “conflict minerals,” to play a role next door in Congo. You can also learn more about and make your views known on the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPSC), which was established in 2003 by the UN General Assembly to prevent diamond sales from financing rebellious movements.

• Stay informed on the ongoing conflict in the DRC and its implications on the international electronics trade by signing up for email updates and action alerts.

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