The Blood Diamonds of the Digital Age

by Jordan Richardson on December 6, 2010

The Globe and Mail‘s Iain Marlow and Omar El Akkad put together a fascinating piece on what professor Jeffrey Mantz of George Mason University calls the “blood diamond of the digital age.”

The article ran on Friday and finally shed some mainstream light on the conflict minerals fuelling the brutal ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, illuminating readers to the fact that the industry at the core of the conflict produces coltan, an obscure mineral. And coltan, as most Canadians do not know, is a critical component in the circuitry of smart phones and other personal electronic devices.

Coltan is the industrial name for the dull black metallic mineral known as columbite-tantalite. From this element, tantalum is extracted (along with niobium). It’s the tantalum that is the sought-after element of circuitry, so we can rest assured that the element makes an appearance in our phones, DVD players, computers, video game systems, and so forth.

The market for tantalum, says The Globe‘s article, is worth about $2 billion USD annually. That may be a conservative estimate.

With 80% of the world’s coltan in Africa and with the vast majority of that coltan sitting in war-ravaged Congo regions, the devastated nation is perhaps ironically one of the richest countries in the world in terms of untapped mineral wealth. Rebel groups have placed themselves around the coltan mines, often with support from local military units, and the trade of the mineral is a savage, destructive business.

Governments, journalists, human rights groups, and even some celebrities have long pointed to the coltan trade’s profits as being the catalyst for the region’s continued atrocities and are now rightly comparing it to the blood diamond trade, especially as our thirst for the latest electronic devices becomes more grotesquely bottomless. Their cries have fallen largely on deaf ears as the human rights tragedies continue to unfold with stunning frequency and we continue to lap up our “elegant symbols of modernity.”

There are, of course, ethical avenues to the coltan trade that do not involve the warlords or the rapists of the Congo. That’s where NDP MP from Ottawa Centre Paul Dewar comes in. After touring the Congo and focusing on the coltan mining industry in April of 2009, Dewar has been working on the Trade in Conflict Minerals Act. The United States has a similar law, but that will require Wall Street reform in order to take serious steps towards action.

Dewar’s act also requires something by way of “sacrifice” for the corporate world. Namely, companies will have to agree to “buy in” to fair trade initiatives. And, as any of us who drink fair trade coffee know, the “cost” of buying in will essentially be passed on to the consumer. What this means, therefore, is that customers will have to be prepared to pay “higher prices” for their electronic gadgets to confirm that the tantalum in them was not obtained on the back of raping, pillaging, dismemberment, and cannibalism.

With the Congolese coltan coming cheap, other large-scale operations in countries like Australia can’t compete on the cost factor. And with the trade influenced heavily by forces in countries like Rwanda to continue the exploitation, it’s hard to know which way is up when it comes to conflict-free coltan.

Dewar’s law includes an optimistic “due diligence mechanism” that proposes to ensure that Canadian companies do not purchase conflict minerals, but with today’s globalization and cross-trafficking, it’s hard to know for sure even with the “tightest” of regulations in place. With corporations continually pressing for higher profits and consumers continually pressing for the latest gear (even if it is just a bloody white iPhone 4), tangible hope in the conflict coltan trade may be more elusive than ever.

In the meantime, you can learn more and even lend your voice. Check out this site for more.

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JC December 8, 2010 at 6:55 am

Very facinating.. If I had the choice between products I know had a hand in human tragady or products made/traded ethically, I’ll happily but the higher cost.
But is there a choice?

Jordan Richardson December 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

Not yet. People have to press their politicians to ensure that these laws are put in place and they have to pressure corporations and manufacturers by perhaps not opening their wallets every single time a new product comes out.

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