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Smartphones: The New Blood Diamonds?

Smartphones: The New Blood Diamonds?

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.

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Photo credit: Julien Harneis

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9:11PM PDT on May 10, 2011

Thank you for this article. For me it's an eye opener to realize what lies behind the purchase of a seemingly harmless smartphone. Thank God I am still sticking to my good old "dumb" hand phone to communicate with my friends.

8:31PM PDT on May 10, 2011

Exploitation, of humans, or our planet, has become the problem of this generation - and each successive - if we make it that far - If it's not solved we will destroy ourselves. In the meantime, the phones will continue to be sold and thought absolutely necessary to our modern lifestyle, and so people will continue to be tortured and live and die horribly, to supply these electronic gadgets...including this computer.
It begins to feel like everything I touch has too high a 'price tag' on it. Oil for the plastics? Creatures, and people, are dying by the millions because we use this material..the guts of this computer? How many died or how much territory was wrested from the local people? How many animals lost habitat and died because of it? And on it goes...

2:25AM PDT on May 8, 2011

Thank you for this text. My very first comment-sentence was to compare this with so well known subject as "using animals" in testing medical, cosmetics,.. products? This seem to be more important to speak about I do care for animals, but evan more for people being abused. You help me change my priorities. I do not hava a smartphone!

2:46AM PDT on Mar 31, 2011

I had no idea! Thankyou for the information!

8:30AM PST on Jan 19, 2011

Thank you so much for educating me on this issue. I would pay more for a product that I could be sure was from a conflict/abuse-free zone. Otherwise I could go without.

5:09PM PST on Jan 6, 2011

Noted very interesting.

2:50PM PST on Dec 29, 2010

Interesting read.

10:45AM PST on Dec 28, 2010

You are going to need a huge package to display the label needed to list all the minerals and all the countries they come from that go into electronics, not to mention the manufactured components. Tantalum Capacitors are used in almost all electronics, not just smart phones, but not so smart phones, entertainment, medical, industrial, the list goes on and on.

9:48PM PST on Dec 14, 2010

Noted and interesting

1:16AM PST on Dec 14, 2010

good article

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