The War at Our Fingertips

Wednesday, November 19, 2008
What is the war taking place right now that has taken the most lives? Iraq? Israel vs. Palestine? Darfur in Sudan? How about “none of the above”? According to a 2008 report by the International Rescue Committee, the fighting in eastern and southern Congo has caused an average of 1500 deaths a day over the past ten years. That means that since 1998 four times as many Congolese have lost their lives to war-related causes than the total number of Americans who have died in all wars ever. 
 
It may seem natural that most Americans know nothing about this tragedy because the United States has no connection to the Congo…or does it? In fact, when you use your cell phone, you could be touching the war in the Congo; when you or your children play a videogame, your family could be touching the war in the Congo; and if you use a laptop computer, you can also touch the war in the Congo. Although there are ethnic and political components to the fighting in eastern Congo, the most brutal aspects of the war have been financed by the international desire for minerals such as gold, cassiterite (tin oxide) and a hard, gray metal called tantalum, which is used in cell phones, gaming systems and laptops. 
 
When most people look at a cell phone they naturally study the display. But if you could see inside the phone, you would find a part called a capacitor that allows the phone and other consumer devices to store and release electrical charges. The main ingredient of high-speed capacitors is tantalum. Most of the tantalum used in devices we use comes from Australia, Canada, Brazil and other non-controversial sources. However, the Democratic Republic of Congo holds large reserves, and the supply there also has the advantage of being relatively close to the surface and inexpensive to mine.
 
The Congo has a long and shocking history of massacres and atrocities going back to the days of Belgian colonialism, but the current problems began in 1994. Following the genocide that took the lives of 800,000 Rwandans in 100 days, many of the Hutu militia that carried out the killings fled across the border into the Congo (then known as Zaire). Eventually, they were pursued by the army of the new Rwandan government. Rebel groups from nearby Uganda and Burundi also moved into the now lawless region. Full-scale war broke out in August 1998 when the Congolese dictator, Laurent Kabila, broke with the armies of Rwanda and Uganda that had helped put him in power the previous year. Before long, fighting was being waged by the national armies of six countries and various Congolese and foreign rebel groups as well. For the locals of the eastern Congo, this development was an utter disaster. Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch says, “The people who constantly suffer are the civilians. It is as if these people are cursed.” More than two and a half million people were driven out of their homes; boys who were barely teenagers were forced into one army or another; women were gang raped and turned into sex slaves. Almost one million children were orphaned by AIDS. Preventable diseases, particularly malaria, reemerged. It is estimated that since 1998 5.4 million people have died in the Congo as a result of war-related causes, including disease, malnutrition, famine and, of course, combat, making it the deadliest war since World War II. 
 
At first, the various armed forces were satisfied to loot, pillage and rape. But then they discovered they could buy more and better weapons by mining, taxing, buying and selling gold and other minerals. In 2000, a world shortage of tantalum sent prices skyrocketing. Gold miners switched to tantalum; farmers left their fields to mine; teenagers were forced to leave school and work in the mines. To feed the miners and the soldiers who controlled the mining areas, militia members invaded national parks. In Kahuzi-Biega National Park, hunters killed thousands of elephants, most of the rare Grauer’s gorillas, chimpanzees, antelopes and buffaloes, before moving on to smaller, formally protected wildlife, such as tortoises, monkeys, porcupines and birds. The lure of money also brought with it alcohol, drugs, prostitution and more HIV and AIDS. 
 
In the Congo, the ore containing tantalum is known as “coltan,” short for columbite-tantalite. From the mines, much of it is smuggled out of the country, mostly through Rwanda, and purchased by a murky world of traders, who sell it to processors, who turn it into tantalum powder or wire. From there it goes to companies that build capacitors, who then sell their product to the makers of cell phones, gaming systems, PDAs, laptop computers and other consumer items. Tantalum also shows up in hearing aids, pacemakers, airbags, the turbine blades for jet engines and in military equipment. But 60% of the world’s processed tantalum is bought by the electronics industry.
 
When the connection between tantalum and the Congolese wars was first publicized in Europe in 2001, end users of the mineral were caught by surprise. The makers of cell phones expressed “concern” about the tragedy in the Congo, but added that all they were doing was buying capacitors. The capacitor makers passed on responsibility to the tantalum suppliers, most of whom insisted that their supplies were “clean.” The tantalum boom ended, reducing the profits to be made by militias in the Congo, many of whom moved on to gold and cassiterite-mining areas. However, the tantalum market is now growing at a steady rate, as the demand for capacitors shows no sign of letting up. In 2007 428 metric tons of coltan was legally exported from Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. Yet most of the coltan mines are still controlled by militia and army groups.
 
Judy Wickens is the secretary-general of the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, whose members process 80% of the world supply of the raw material of tantalum. “There is nothing immoral in mining minerals in a country and selling it,” she says. “Congolese tantalum represents, at most, 4% of the world supply. The industry is concerned about the people in the Congo, but it is not in a position to check the situation.”
 
In 2002, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo signed peace agreements with the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, and most foreign troops withdrew from the country. Unfortunately, the fighting continued anyway. Van Woudenberg explains: “The fighting takes place over control of mines and customs posts. The armed groups steal from the miners, take bribes to allow miners to work and then impose taxes. They call it tax, but what it really is is that you are paying the guy with the gun.” There are still regular reports of militias attacking villages and killing and raping the residents. 
 
Meanwhile, the tantalum-using industries did begin to address the problem. For example, Kemet Corporation of Simpsonville, South Carolina, the world’s largest producer of tantalum capacitors, demands that all of its suppliers sign a Letter of Certification guaranteeing that none of their tantalum comes from illegal Congolese mines. Cabot Corporation is one of those suppliers. Cabot, which operates a tantalum processing facility in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, and is one of the two largest refiners of tantalum in the world, does the same. Electronics manufacturers have issued statements supporting a boycott of illegal tantalum from the Congo. The weakness in these gestures is that it is easy for suppliers, or the traders they buy from, to sign a piece of paper claiming that the tantalum is clean, and then, with a wink and a nod, continue to mix Congolese tantalum with supplies from legitimate sources. In the words of Karen Hayes, director of the Extractive Industries Program of Pact, “Nobody is using tantalum from the Congo, yet all of the tantalum mined in the Congo is being used.” According to Patricia Feeney, director of Rights and Accountability in Development, some of this illicit material is shipped to start-up companies in China, where it is either processed or just rebranded and reexported.
 
In October 2002, a United Nations Panel of Experts issued a report citing 85 companies involved in the trade of Congolese coltan, including Kemet and Cabot, with violating the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises established by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a group of 30 market democracies, including the United States. A later report stated that the accusations against Kemet and Cabot were “resolved” and required no further action. The U.S. Department of State, which, through its Office of Investment Affairs, is supposed to handle complaints against violators of the OECD Guidelines, has chosen not to conduct investigations of more recent practices because the Guidelines are non-binding.
 
One solution to ending the connection between our cell phones and other electronic products and the exploitation of adults and children in the eastern Congo is one in which national governments, in partnership with the tantalum-using industries, create a regulated “chain of custody” that ensures that fair working conditions exist at every stage of the journey that the mineral takes from the mines in the Congo to capacitor manufacturing facilities run by American companies, such as Kemet, in Mexico and China. Fortunately there is a model for a similar certified chain, known as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, that regulates the trade in rough diamonds, and of which the United States is a participant. Although the Kimberley Process is not a complete guarantee against the mining, sale and use of “conflict” diamonds, it does provide a framework scheme for the tantalum industry. Says Feeney, “Considering the attention given to Africa at the recent G-8 Summit, why cannot Congress hold hearings about the OECD Guidelines and about how we can get companies to comply? We should ask if U.S. companies are showing the values that the United States espouses.”

-David Wallechinsky

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