The impacts of 5g and the IoT extend far beyond the end users of digital technologies. The production of these technologies has fueled war, murder, rape, and child labor in the Congo for over 20 years due the technology industry’s dependence on conflict minerals.
As reported by Zainab Hawa Bangura, Director of Strong Roots, a charity dedicated to improving the condition of miners:
“Civilians unlucky enough to live near deposits of conflict minerals are driven from their homes, subjected to horrific human rights abuses, and sometimes forced into slave labour in the mines. Armed groups rape men, women and children. Rape in this context is not the collateral damage of warfare – it is the direct result of the illicit trade in conflict minerals.”
A BBC News article, DR Congo: Cursed by its natural wealth reports,
“Forcibly conscripted child soldiers corralled armies of slaves to dig for minerals such as coltan, a key component in mobile phones, the latest obsession in the developed world, while annihilating enemy communities, raping women and driving survivors into the jungle to die of starvation and disease.”
The article then goes on to explain:
“The billions of pounds those minerals have generated have brought nothing but misery and death to the very people who live on top of them, while enriching a microscopic elite in the Congo and their foreign backers, and underpinning our technological revolution in the developed world.”
Just about all our digital technology – mobile phones, laptops, batteries, etc.- require what are termed “rare minerals” in order to function optimally. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is particularly rich in some of these minerals. In the last two decades, thousands of mines have cropped up across the Congo, and hundreds of thousands of workers – including children – live, mine, and export these minerals under very harsh, slave labor conditions.
The Congo, though one of the poorest countries in the world, is one of the richest in minerals needed for our digital technology. According to a lengthy 2011 report by the organization Free the Slaves, the average worker in the Congo earns about $1 a day, and yet the country’s untapped mineral resources have an estimated value of $24 trillion. Having endured over 125 years of one unstable regime after another, the Congolese people have been unable to form a stable government and build social and political institutions. Great natural resources, along with the absence of a functioning government, are an open invitation to corruption and violence from surrounding countries and others who want a piece of the wealth.
Realizing there is great profit to be gained from these much-coveted minerals, rebel militias in the Congo took control of nearly all the mines. According to Dominique Bikaba, Director of Strong Roots, 98% of the mines in East Congo are controlled in some way by militia groups. As reported in the Guardian “either the militia control mines and force people to work in them or these rebel groups demand ‘taxes’ from workers.” Congolese workers flock to the mines in the hope of finding work to provide for their basic needs. But with a percentage of mined minerals seized and sold illegally by militias, and the workers taxed above and beyond this, miners are left destitute and without adequate resources to even leave the mine, and thus remain trapped there.
Illegal and untagged minerals are smuggled out of the country where they are sold to smelters. Once processed, the minerals are then resold to tech companies for use in the production of our digital devices. Money obtained from the sale of smuggled minerals, illegal taxes exacted from workers, and proceeds from captured and raped women sold back to their communities, provide rebel soldiers with funds to purchase yet more weapons. And the cycle of war and corruption goes on – while we, in the west, turn a blind eye to the violence behind a booming industry that fuels both our economy and our fancies.
Frank Paulsen, director of Blood on the Mobile, noted, “In this place [the Congolese mine where he was filming], people die so we can get mobile phones.” According to World Without Genocide at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, “It is estimated that 6 million have died as a result of the conflict, and an estimated 45,000 more die each month.” Children and women also suffer – Unicef estimates that in 2016, there were about 40,000 children working in mines across the Congo. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and sold back to their villages for ransom – these are casualties of a war financed primarily by the electronics industry.
The untold suffering of children from violence on one end of the earth is enabling children on the other end to waste hours each day immersed in violent computer games or social media. The rape of thousands of women on one end of the earth, has been ignored and complicity accepted, so that parents on the other end of the earth can use IoT parental-replacement-technologies such as robots or “smart” baby monitors to help raise their children. Millions of people on ‘one end of the earth” have died, so that millions of people on the other end of the earth can saturate their living spaces with mega amounts of wireless radiation which causes suffering, disease, and death, Something has gone terribly awry here.
Tech companies have found it difficult to ensure that their supply chain is completely conflict-mineral free as it can be hard to trace the source of a given mineral. Beginning steps have been taken to certify that minerals are conflict free. But these steps have been slow coming and not enthusiastically adopted by corporations.
Moreover, even in the mines which are no longer controlled by rebel militias – and thus considered “conflict-mineral free” – the condition of workers remains extremely harsh. In a 2015 article from The Daily Mail, Nick Fagge reported on Luwow mine in the Congo, which was by then a conflict-free mine:
“Despite the importance of the mineral to the global multi-billion pound mobile phone industry, the miners – who toil away under the hot sun day after day – earn $5 a day for a 12-hour day for this backing-breaking work, the minimum wage is $3 a day.”
One can only wonder what kind of havoc billions of new Internet-connected “things” will wreak on the longstanding instability and violence in the Congo and on the temptation to exploit workers even in conflict-free mines in order to produce “affordable” technologies.
If there were to be an end to the on-going violence and horrors in the Congo over conflict minerals, this would likely drive up the cost of minerals which would be reflected in the cost of our digital electronics. Can the IoT be produced without reliance on conflict minerals and exploitation of Congolese workers? Our tech industry has fueled warlords in the Congo for over two decades. Will these warlords be an integral part of our IoT? Is there any hope for a resolution when this might mean settling for less prosperity? What will our industries and government choose — social justice or economic growth? Peace or prosperity? What will we choose?
On April 7th, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced it would be scaling beck the tiny bit of legislation we currently have in the US to address the problem of conflict minerals in our technology – Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Bill. http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN1792WX
It is an essential part of most mobile gadgets sold around the world and demand for cobalt is soaring. But the process of extracting the mineral from the earth comes at a huge human cost.
Published on Jan 19, 2016
This film documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices