The production of our electronic technologies has fueled war, murder, rape, and child labor in the Congo. Here’s how.
Just about all our digital technology – mobile phones, laptops, batteries, etc.- require “rare minerals”. 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 exceedingly harsh and hazardous labor conditions.
Though one of the poorest countries in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the richest in minerals needed for 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 build lasting social and political institutions. Great natural resources, along with an unstable 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. Congolese workers flock to the mines in the hope of finding work to provide for their most basic needs. But with a percentage of mined minerals seized and sold illegally by militias, and taxes extracted above and beyond this, workers are often left destitute and without adequate resources to leave.
Illegal minerals – minerals that have not been tagged – 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 the booming industry that fuels our economy and our fancies.
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.”
According to World Without Genocide at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, approximately 6 million have died as a result of the conflict, and about 45,000 more die each month. 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.” 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.
Moreover, even in 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 the 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.”
Something’s gone awry:
The untold suffering of children working on one end of the earth is enabling children on the other end to waste hours each day immersed in computer games or entrapped in the snares of social media. The rape of thousands of women on one end of the earth, has been complicity accepted, so that people on the other end of the earth can grapple with revenge porn and teenage sexting. Millions on one end of the earth have died, so that millions on the other end of the earth can fill their homes with unnecessary wireless gadgets that contribute to illness and chronic health conditions. Something has gone terribly awry here.
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 fueled by conflict minerals, it would likely drive up the cost of minerals making our digital electronics less affordable. Can the Internet of Things be produced without reliance on conflict minerals and the exploitation of Congolese workers? Will warlords that have enabled our digital technology boom be a “necessary” and integral part of the IoT? Is there any hope for a resolution to the war in the Congo, when peace may hamper industry’s hope of connecting homes and entire cities to the Internet? What will we choose — social justice or economic growth? Peace in the Congo or prosperity in the west?
Please also see this Open Letter by Siddharth Kara:
“From stone to phone, they must be accountable.””
“I have seen immeasurable human torment, transformed by a system of refined cruelty into the flashy new products sold to us every day, at profits that mock decency. I have heard a thousand cries of misery and injustice, that ought to be the ringtones on the smartphones we buy. Companies that buy cobalt from the DRC cannot jettison their responsibility for the vicious and unjust treatment of their Congolese employees simply because they are separated from them by a few thousand miles, and a few thin layers in their supply chains.”
Tech companies are wreaking havoc from cradle to grave…from East to West: Abominable production practices including child labor, war, rape and death; addictive technology that consumes minds, poisons bodies and ravages the earth; and rampant waste from our industry flamed obsession for more.
On April 7th, 2017, 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
The Curse of the Conflict Minerals in the Congo July 5th, 2017 | Russian Television (RT)
Superb video documentary! (52 minutes) Close-up look at the history and struggles of the Congolese people working in the mines to produce the digital technology of the West.
I can’t say that the Congolese, we are in control of our destiny. No…Because the ones who benefit from our minerals are not the local population. But Western countries are the ones who are taking everything. They are making themselves rich, while we are getting poorer and poorer. I am afraid even for my children, because they will continue in this system to be slaves forever. We’ll never be powerful enough to challenge the Western countries. So…the future will be a future of slaves. I don’t think our children will be able to solve the problem that we didn’t solve.