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Blood Cells

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Issue: 55 Section: Business Geography: Africa Congo Topics: Mining

November 9, 2008

Blood Cells

Coltan in phones exacerbates crisis in the Congo

by Robin Browne

Your shiny new iPhone may be helping fuel the deadliest conflict since World War II. Photo: Nadine Wiepning

OTTAWA, ONTARIO–After the film "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was released in 2006, the diamond mines fuelling wars in other countries became familiar to more people in the West.

The film highlighted a disturbing phenomenon in some resource-rich conflict areas, particularly in Africa: international corporations operating in areas where regional fighting – and natural resources – are plentiful. Rival armies fight to control these resources and use the revenues to buy arms, and continue fighting.

Very few people, however, know that their cell phones may be doing the same thing. Almost all electronic equipment contains an element called tantalum that plays an important part in capacitors in electronic devices. Tantalum capacitors are used in laptop computers, pagers, mobile phones and game consoles.

Tantalum comes from two minerals, columbite or tantalite, which collectively are known as coltan. Eighty per cent of the world's coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A 2001 Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo blamed coltan for helping fuel vicious civil wars since 1996.

Two former Canadian prime ministers have links to mining in the Congo. Brian Mulroney sits on the board of Barrick Gold. According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Barrick operated a gold mine in the Congo's Haut Uélé District until 1998. In the mid 1990s, Joe Clark was both leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and a special advisor on Africa for the mining company First Quantum Mineral, according to a 2007 report by The Dominion. First Quantum's website indicates the company is still doing business in the Congo.

While former prime ministers have been active in the Congo, Canadian governments have been almost completely silent on the Congo and the impacts of Canadian mining companies operating in the country.

This, despite several United Nations reports drawing attention to illegal corporate exploitation of the Congo's minerals.

"Eighty per cent of the population in the Congo live on 30 cents a day or less, with billions of dollars going out the back door and into the pockets of mining companies," says Maurice Carney, who works with the Washington-based Friends of the Congo.

It was against this backdrop that Apple released its eagerly awaited 3G iPhone in July, selling more than one million units its first weekend out.

Does the new iPhone use Congolese coltan? Several calls to Apple's corporate office failed to get an answer to that question.

So what can people do who don't want to be indirectly fueling a war but aren't ready to stop using their phones? Carney suggests three things:

1) Call their cell phone manufacturer and ask if their phones contain Congolese coltan.

2) Do what they can to make sure their personal savings or pension money is not invested in companies doing business in the Congo.

3) Support the Congolese people by raising awareness of the war.

Carney also says that recycling cell phones can help by reducing overall demand for coltan. Cell phone recycling services are available in some Canadian cities. Switching phones less often also helps lessen demand.

For manufacturers, Carney believes it's not about getting Congolese coltan out of their products. Rather, "they can use their enormous power to pressure their governments to take action on the Congo." Carney says his organization would like companies to urge governments and their suppliers to ensure that any coltan coming from the Congo is acquired legally and benefits the Congolese people.

A version of the article appeared previously in rabble.ca

Robin Browne is an Ottawa-based communications professional who writes, blogs and podcasts about communications and marketing in the social economy at Conscious Images.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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