The hidden cost of a call to friends

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2008, 12:00am

Every time we make a call on our mobile phones, there is a possibility we are fuelling a bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

For most of us, mobile phones have become fifth limbs. We use them for calling friends, exchanging text messages, surfing the internet, and we even use them as fashion statements, sending people messages about the kind of people we would like them to think we are.

But a vital component in our phones - and the same goes for our laptops and game consoles - cannot be made without a heat-resistant mineral that is mined in the DRC, among other places.

The DRC, in Central Africa, is a country blessed - and cursed - with natural mineral resources. One of them is coltan, a raw material that is used in tantalum, a heat-resistant powder essential for making the capacitors.

Capacitors build and store electric charges, and they are used in every cellphone in the world, along with laptops and PlayStations.

Just how much of the world's reserves of coltan the DRC holds are unknown, but it is in high demand. It has been since the world entered the digital age in the 1990s, and by 2000 its price rose ninefold to US$340 per pound in the space of a year and kept climbing beyond the US$800 mark at a time that coincided with dotcom bubble and the release of Sony's groundbreaking PlayStation 2.

Lucrative profits from coltan, along with other mineral resources such as diamonds and tin, are fuelling the conflict in eastern Congo, which as been dubbed by some as the 'PlayStation War'. Amid the second Congo war, which broke out in 1998 and killed more than 5.4 million people, the United Nations issued a report about the illegal trading of mineral resources in the DRC.

The UN accused foreign forces from Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe of systematically exploiting the mines in Congo and selling large amounts of the mineral to western companies, which indirectly fuel the conflict.

During the war Rwanda - a country with few natural reserves of coltan - exported more US$250 million of coltan in just 18 months.

To put this in context, however, it should be borne in mind the total annual value of coltan is about US$6 billion, and the majority of the world's supply of the mineral is sourced from Australia and other mineral exporters. Major mobile phone manufacturers, such as Ericsson and Motorola require of their suppliers that no Congolese coltan is used in their products.

But Congolese supplies of the mineral still reach global markets by circuitous routes.

Continuing unrest in the DRC itself can largely be blamed. The latest crisis was ignited by Tutsi rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda who, despite his claims that he is liberating the Congolese people and protecting Tutsi tribesmen from ethnic cleansing, many suspect simply wants control of the mines.

One of his key demands is for the government to scrap a US$5 billion deal with China that grants them access to the region's mineral resources.

As is the case with 'blood diamonds', coltan miners work in terrible conditions, digging with bare hands in river beds and without any protective gear, earning as little as US$10-20 a week. Child labour is common, as kids' tiny bodies can squeeze into narrow tunnels to dig at the coltan where adults cannot.

The UN has named 85 international companies that have fuelled this industry, this trade and this war. But we too - as the users of the products - are to blame. Clearly, none of us are going to give up our phones. The question now is how do the people who give us the technology we have become addicted to guarantee it is not tainted with blood?


1 Compare the sale of blood diamonds to the sale of conflict coltan.

2 What has been the impact of the coltan boom on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)?

3 Search online for the details of the DRC's deal with China and discuss whether or not this would be a good deal for the people of the DRC.