As Christmas approaches, new gadgets are at the top of many people’s Christmas lists. Gadgets like smartphones and e-book readers and tablet computers are fun, small and do lots of amazing things. Nearly 80 million of them were sold in the third quarter of 2010 alone, and the holiday season is sure to blow that number out of the water.
The smartphone industry is worth trillions of dollars annually. And deep within the guts of each one of those nifty gadgets, there lies a compound that may have the blood of human hands all over it.
This compound is called coltan. Coltan is used to make tantalum capacitors. For those of us who aren’t electrical engineers, these are the bits that make the information flow within your smartphone or other gadget.
Coltan can only be retrieved via mining. Much of the world’s coltan is mined in Africa, and much of that in the Congo. The Congo itself is in the midst of a bloody civil war, the country subject to lawlessness, with the military often nothing more than servants to warlords. The use of rape and other sexual violence to terrorize and intimidate is described as being the worst in the world.
The mining industry in that country relies on slave labour, violence and sexual assault. Since the popularity of smartphones has risen, warlords in the country have taken control of the mines to retrieve the precious metal, then sell it on the international market to manufacturers of the gadgets that will ultimately end up under our Christmas trees.
There are sources of coltan across the planet that are conflict-free, particularly in Australia. However, Australian coltan is more expensive to procure (given that the miners are being paid fair wages), potentially driving up the costs of the end product. In addition, there is a difficulty in ensuring that the coltan purchased by manufacturers is in fact from a single source – Congolese coltan is routinely shipped to Australia and sold from there, for example, leaving the origin of all coltan murky.
The U.S. Government has recently passed the Dodd-Frank act, which contains a clause that will pressure companies to reveal the sources of certain minerals, including coltan, to the Securities and Exchange commission. However, big retailers including Wal-Mart and Target are fighting against the bill, saying it would be too difficult to trace the source of many compounds including coltan.
It is true that there are extreme difficulties determining the exact source of coltan, leaving companies and manufacturers in a potentially difficult spot. However, we cannot accept “it’s too hard” as an answer when people are suffering horrible violence and sexual assault to put these gadgets on the market. We, as consumers, need to be vocal about this: we need to tell manufacturers and retailers that conflict compounds are not acceptable.
Last weekend’s Globe and Mail reported on Canadian MP Paul Dewar’s initiative to pass the Trade In Conflict Minerals Act, which would call on companies in Canada to ensure all coltan used in their manufacturing process is not sourced from a conflict region. As a private members’ bill, the legislation has less chance of passing than a Government-introduced bill.
This issue is too important to be buried by politics. Paul Dewar has invited the Canadian government to adopt his legislation immediately. We can only hope the governing parties can put partisanship aside to further this incredibly important cause.
Sign the petition to encourage the Canadian government to to pass this legislation, and help to put an end to the violent origins of our electronics.
Photo credit: Julien Harneis