December 5, 2009

Dirty electronics?

Congo Conflict minerals?

I’ve never thought about where the raw materials in cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, digital cameras, and video game systems came from. But the "Cyber Monday" marketing gimmick to induce consumers to buy more gadgets than we really need led me to information about the “no blood for gadgets” campaign. Remember “blood diamonds”? The same is now true for electronics and jewelry.

A recent 60 Minutes segment (with the Enough Project of the Center for American Progress) covered the trade in “conflict minerals” for our electronics and jewelry and how it finances the atrocities and sexual violence against civilians in Congo, Sudan, and Uganda. Militias and armies there are warring over the ores that produce tin, tungsten, and tantalum (the 3 Ts)—as well as gold.

Take a closer look at the raw materials for the global electronics industry:
• Tin (produced from cassiterite) – used inside your cell phone and all electronic products as a solder on circuit boards. The biggest use of tin worldwide is in electronic products. Congolese armed groups earn approximately $85 million per year from trade in tin.
• Tantalum (produced from “coltan”) – used to store electricity in capacitors in iPods, digital cameras, and cell phones. Sixty-five to 80 percent of the world’s tantalum is used in electronic products. Congolese armed groups earn an estimated $8 million per year from trading in tantalum.
• Tungsten (produced from wolframite) – used to make your cell phone or Blackberry vibrate. Tungsten is a growing source of income for armed groups in Congo, with armed groups currently earning approximately $2 million annually.
• Gold – used in jewelry and as a component in electronics. Extremely valuable and easy to smuggle, Congolese armed groups are earning between $44 million to $88 million per year from gold

What can YOU do? Not much at his point, except refraining from buying every gadget that comes along. The Enough Project is asking electronics companies to not turn a blind eye toward Congo’s conflicts and mineral trade. This will require them to change their procurement practices and demand that their suppliers provide proof of where their minerals are sourced from. It happened to the diamond industry, so it can happen here. None of the big electronics companies want to fuel these deadliest wars, but the bottom line rules. See  for more information.

Currently, electronics manufacturers do not have a system to trace the sources of their raw materials. That may change if the Conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009, recently introduced by Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washington), passes. This bill will also help raise awareness about the issue to both the public and policy makers. If passed, this bill would create a system of audits and import declarations that would distinguish those goods imported into the United States that contain conflict minerals. The resulting transparency would be an important step forward in helping break the links between the mineral trade and human rights violations.