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” 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.

Though one of the poorest countries in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo 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 lasting 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. 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, workers are often left destitute and without adequate resources to leave, and remain trapped there.

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.

As reported:

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 fight revenge porn and grapple with 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 for two decades be a “necessary” and integral part of the IoT?  Is there any hope for a resolution to the war in the Congo, when we, in the west, may have to settle for less profit and digital tricks and treats?  What will our industries and government choose — social justice or economic growth? Peace in the Congo or prosperity in the west?  What will we choose?

Addendum:

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

This is bad news as it will likely cause the escalation of war, child labor, and rape in the Congo.
 
The Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010. Section 1502 of this Act requires companies to report with “due diligence” if there are any conflict minerals in their supply chain. Although this legislation was just a nod to a devastating problem, it did increase awareness, and according to Enough Project violence in the Congo subsided somewhat. But the legislation was controversial as some technology companies stopped buying minerals altogether that were sourced in the Congo – both minerals that fueled violence, as well as those that did not.  
 
Some argue that the Congolese people were hit hard from the loss of revenue, and we should scale back the Dodd Frank legislation. But the Congolese people themselves seem to disagree with that assessment. Click here for a link to eight letters, representing 85 different Congolese groups as well as some officials in the Congo, that oppose scaling back the Dodd Frank legislation.
 
It is more likely that the SEC’s push to reverse conflict mineral regulations is not motivated by concern for the well-being of the Congolese people but rather by an effort to remove barriers to the Internet of Things. A yearly report and public disclosure on the supply chain of every IoT machine, “thing”, appliance, sensor, robot, and device would throw a huge wrench into the IoT workings.
 
So Conflict Minerals will likely join the ranks of all the other social and environmental injustices that are being overlooked in order to be “first out the gate” and to produce an “affordable” IoT –  Privacy, cyber security, workers’ conditions, cheap toxic materials, health effects from cheaper wireless, irresponsible handling of e-waste, and planned obsolescence to top it all off.

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.

https://rtd.rt.com/films/congo-my-precious//

Excerpts: (In some cases the grammar may not be perfect as English is not their first language.)  
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.
 
An affordable IoT can only be produced on the backs of slave labor, horrendous working conditions in factories, irresponsibly handled e-waste, cheap toxic materials, little or no cyber security measures, complete disregard for health or environmental impacts, and massive collection of our personal data to ensure maximum profits.
Conflict Minerals 101: 2018 Update | Enough Project | Feb. 7th, 2018
Congo, My Precious. The Curse of the ‘conflict minerals’ in Congo (Trailer) July 5th, 2017 | Russian Television
July, 2017 | 5.4 Million Dead in Conflict Mineral Wars to Put an iPhone in Your Hands
Feb 27, 2017  “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.”
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.”
CBS News finds children mining cobalt in Democratic Republic of Congo Mar. 5th, 2018
Additional Resources about Conflict Minerals