Are There Conflict Minerals on Your Mobile Phone?

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jun 01, 2009

So asks the Enough Project, and its new campaign Raise Hope for Congo. The Enough Project is part of the Center for American Progress, a US-based left-leaning think tank and advocacy organization. The Enough Project's campaign aims, according to Eileen White Read from the organization in an article submitted to to

..end the trade in “conflict minerals” from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, which are sold by rebel groups to purchase arms and serve as a direct cause of widespread sexual violence in that country.

You may have heard previously of coltan which was in the news most recently in 2000 and then again in 2005, when violence in the Congo flared, killing millions of people. Coltan is African slang for ore that contains tantalum, a metal widely used in electronics, including mobile phones. A host of other products, including MP3 players, gaming consoles, and even aircraft engines contain tantalum. According to a report in Der Spiegel, a German weekly, "a typical Nokia handset has a tantalum capacitor, a component that temporarily stores electrical charges."

Tantalum is one of a number of minerals -- including gold, tin, and cobalt -- exploited by various factions in the Congo to purchase weapons or enrich themselves. According to Der Spiegel,

Coltan might seem like an attractive business, at least compared to subsistence farming. The ore lends itself to so-called artisanal mining: Local people can dig it up and concentrate it using homemade sluices, similar to how California pioneers panned for gold. Guerilla factions in the Congo, as well as their government backers in countries such as Rwanda or Uganda, make money by controlling the coltan mines directly or by extracting payoffs from small-scale miners and dealers.

The Enough campaign recently issued a new report trying to document the connection between these factions and coltan mining, and, according to Read White, "is calling on electronics companies to pledge that they will make their products conflict free and open their supply chains to transparent audits."

The report, "Can You Hear Congo Now? Cell Phones, Conflict Minerals, and the Worst Sexual Violence in the World," details how "conflict minerals" that are mined in the war-torn DRC are sold by rebel groups to purchase arms.  "The conflict in eastern DRC - the deadliest since World War II - is fuelled in significant part by a multi-million-dollar trade in minerals," the report states.

Read notes in the article submitted to that,

the conflict... is being fueled by this trade in minerals by armed groups who control many mines, force individual miners to pay “taxes” on the minerals they mine, and destroy communities through sexual violence. More than five million people have died as a result of the war, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in eastern Congo over the past decade. While individual miners earn a pittance – no more than $5 per day - the armed groups that are perpetuating the violence generated an estimated $185 million last year by trading in four main minerals, and gold. Getting the minerals out of Congo involves smuggling, bribes, and other illegal activities.

But is this really another, more high-tech version of 'blood diamonds" that are directly fueling a deadly conflict?  Is calling on the manufacturers, including Nokia and other mobile handset producers, to abandon puchasing from illegal mines going to address the financing of the war in the Congo?  Even the Enough Campaign says that it

"doesn’t claim electronics companies are themselves knowingly dealing in conflict minerals; nor is Enough calling for a total ban or boycott of Congolese minerals, which would hurt miners. However, Enough believes that electronics companies should audit their supply chains to keep out illegally-traded minerals from their products. If these companies show leadership, they can fundamentally end the trade in conflict minerals, ensuring that Congo’s mineral wealth does not contribute to armed conflict and the continuation of the worst violence against women and girls in the world.

In fact, a bill to encourage auditing was introduced last month in the U.S. Senate. The Congo Conflict Minerals Act  would require U.S. companies selling products using tin, tantalum or tungsten, to disclose the country of origin of the materials to the Securities and Exchange Commission. AllAfrica, in a recent article, quotes Richard Durbin, Senate Majority Whip: "Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer."

But, Der Spiegel asks,

does that mean your mobile phone is helping General Laurent Nkunda -- whose ethnic Tutsi militia recently overran swaths of eastern Congo -- buy AK-47s and land mines? That would be a stretch. As it happens, the Congo is not a major source of tantalum. Most comes from Australia, followed by Canada and such African countries as Ethiopia and Mozambique. The US Geological Survey groups the Congo under "other" tantalum sources that together account for just 2 percent of world production. Recycled tantalum also is available. Even tantalum from the Congo isn't necessarily tainted: Foreign and domestic companies mine it legally in some areas, providing an important source of livelihood.  Nokia says it requires component suppliers to certify that none of their tantalum comes from the Congo and it periodically checks compliance. In any case, Nokia says that the mobile-phone industry accounts for 2 percent of total tantalum deman. 

Given this, Der Spiegel adds, "the odds that your phone contains conflict coltan are pretty long."

But activists argue that even relatively small amounts of coltan coming from the Congo are providing revenue for the warring factions. In addition to the Enough Campaign, there are a number of European groups that have revived the Coltan issue, such as makeITfair and London-based humanitarian group Global Witness. 

Global Witness is calling on companies to ensure they are not buying Coltan or other minerals from regions of the Congo, where the fighting is taking place. But, Der Spiegel notes,

"it is nearly impossible for companies to say with absolute certainty that no tantalum of dubious origin makes it into the supply chain. Shady operators have an incentive to buy black market ore, which is cheaper because it avoids the costly customs-clearance process that legitimate importers must undergo. Most developed countries have strict controls. But some Chinese ports wave shipments through, industry sources say. Once the ore has been refined to nonradioactive tantalum powder, it's impossible to trace.

in the future, it may be possible to better trace Coltan.  A German team has already catalogued 600 unique coltan "fingerprints," that identify the geographical pedigree to tell precisely where ore comes from, even when batches from different locations are mixed together. Der Spiegel again: 

With backing from the German government, the German team is developing a system in which legitimate mines would register their coltan fingerprints. An independent organization would spot-check ore and reject any that isn't in the approved database. Such a system could also be used to ensure that mines provide decent working conditions and meet environmental standards.

However, right now the testing procedure is still costly and time-consuming.

Moreover, there are legitimate concerns that a ban on the ores from the Congo altogether could do more harm than good.  Janet Ginsberg of Trackernews notes that "an estimated 700,000 “artisanal miners” (according to United States Geological Survey figures) hack away at rock, often working deep in airless mines, hoping to strike cassiterite, coltan or wolframite before it literally strikes them. Mine safety isn’t on the agenda and injuries are common. Many of the miners are children. Ore is carried out in sacks that weigh more than the people whose backs they break."  She rightly points out that,

Ironically, in the corruption-warped day to day reality, the status quo offers perverse security. In the 2008 French documentary “Blood Coltan,” a middleman dealer filmed via hidden camera justifies his business by noting that miners wouldn’t have any work at all if he weren’t there to buy the minerals. Despite the bone-chilling amoral cynicism, he has a point. It is not enough to call for a halt to the conflict-mineral trade without also providing alternative livelihoods and the safety in which to pursue them. The miners work to survive, to barter for food. They have few, if any, other options...."

Ginsberg also notes that “Enough!” and other humanitarian organizations don't want to stop mining in Congo, nor do they want to see foreign companies abandon the country. However, given the current reality and ability to securely track the pedigree, companies, if pressured enough by activists may have few other options, leaving thousands of miners without livelihoods. The Enough Campaign, in its own FAQs states that

..a comprehensive approach is required to improve the Congolese mining sector, one that improves livelihoods for miners and complements corporate responsibility. Artisanal miners work in extremely difficult conditions in eastern Congo and earn an average of $1-5 per day, largely because the armed groups extract such enormous profits on the backs of their labor. Systems of indentured labor, extreme health and safety hazards, and environmental damage are widespread. The United States and other governments must work with the Congolese government to reform the mineral trade so that its benefits accrue to the Congolese people rather than the armed groups that prey upon them.

Enough recognizes the potential economic consequences of an interruption in the trade in minerals in eastern Congo, and we are calling for a substantial international investment in alternative livelihoods and transitional support for miners to mitigate these effects. These programs should be supported by international donors and corporate social responsibility initiatives on the part of leading electronics companies and other companies in the supply chain.

A strategy paper, “A Comprehensive Approach to Congo’s Conflict Minerals, outlines the longer-term goals for "greater transparency and corporate responsibility will help to expand the market for conflict-free minerals and ensure that profits from resource exploitation in Congo benefit local populations in a legal and sustainable manner," according to the Campaign.  

However, in the meantime, this issue with its complexity defies easy slogans and pat campaigning.  This cellphone, even if it contains traces of conflict minerals, is not so easy to abandon just yet.

Photo courtesy Julien Harneis

The author would like to thank Eileen Read and the Enough Campaign for pro-actively submitting an article to that formed the basis for this post. 

Blood in the Mobile

Hi all

We are producing a documentary about the connection between our Mobile Phones and the conflict in Congo. Visit our homepage:



Blood in the Mobile

Ole -- have been checking out some of the footage you have on YouTube. Very interesting - looking forward to seeing the entire film and your evidence. It's a thorny and complicated issue! Thanks for pointing out the site!


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