Cell Phones, Coltan, and the Congo

Cell phones, computers, video game consoles. Many of us use these technologies on a daily basis, without a single thought as to where they come from or how they’re made.  Today, I’ll let you in on something.  All of the gadgets that we think separate us as a privileged society actually connect us back to one that is not so privileged.


Coltan, a mineral used to produce tantalum, a vital component of capacitors, is used in essentially all electronics.  It comes from the Congo, a country rich with natural resources and exploited to the point of horrible poverty.  The Congo is also in the midst of what seems to be perpetual civil war.  The only thing that the two warring sides agree on is the desire to make money off of coltan. Locals are paid to extract the coltan, effectively ruining their home environment. They don’t even know why it is worth so much; they only know that it is.  It is so plentiful that anyone with a shovel can go and dig it up.  So why isn’t everyone rich off of it? They are paid little to nothing to pick, dig, and wade around up to their thighs in water, waiting for the coltan to sink to the bottom.  But they also have no better way of making money for themselves and their families.  Where most of that money goes (liquor and prostitution) is wholly another problem.

The point is, a resource that could and should be helping a country get back on its feet is doing the exact opposite of that. Because this phenomenon happens so frequently, there’s actually a name for these types of resources – conflict minerals.  The issue mirrors that of “blood diamonds,” which were hugely problematic not that long ago.  So, now we know that this is a problem.  But we’re all the way over here.  And we’re certainly not giving up our beloved technology.  Is there really anything we can do about it?

If you’re willing to, then yes.  You can research before you buy something to make sure that it is “conflict-free.”  You can see where electronic companies rank in terms of conflict minerals here. You can send requests and petitions to companies, asking them to better monitor where their resources are coming from.  Of course, as far as the consumer chain goes, extraction is only part of the problem.  But it’s a very important part, a step that can effectively be bettered if we make a demand for it.

by Himabindu Vinnakota


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