Apple and other famous technology companies and their millions of customers might have blood on their hands.
Two years ago, after reading a piece by Nick Kristof in the Times – "Death by Gadget" – an Apple fan fired off an email to Steve Jobs, asking how Apple ensures that its materials aren't coming from a conflict hot zone, much like the "blood diamonds" that became infamous in recent decades. About an hour later, a reply showed up in his inbox:
Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few [free] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem.
Sent from my iPhone
As Suroosh Alvi and Jason Mojica reported in their trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo last year for Vice and Motherboard, the source of the materials used to make these pretty things – materials like tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold – aren't pretty. For decades, they've helped to fund a terrible, now smoldering, civil war.
In the Guardian last week, the Congolese writer Delly Mawazo petitioned a post-Jobs Apple to "make a conflict-free iPhone" – one that doesn't include slave labor or civil war as central components.
"While minerals from the Congo have enriched your life, they have often brought violence, rape and instability to my home country," he writes. "That's because those armed groups fighting for control of these mineral resources use murder, extortion and mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, which helps them secure control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas."
The unrefined metallic ore combulite-tantelite – or coltan – is crucial to the finely-tuned inner components found in nearly every phone, computer, video game systems, car device. And in addition to Australia and Brazil, much of the world's coltan comes from the DRC, home to a brutal, decade-long war between rebel factions and occupying armies that's left 5.4 million people dead since fighting started in 1998, making it the deadliest armed conflict since World War II.
Since the mid nineteen-nineties, armed groups, including the occupying Rwandan military, had been fighting over control for the cobalt, uranium, gold and coltan embedded in the volcanic mountains of eastern Congo. In the meantime, they've been using the sale of these metals to buy their bullets. When the Sony Playstation 2 launched in 2000, the price of a pound of coltan skyrocketed from US $49.00 to $275.00 in the course of a year – which, according to one NGO, led to a surge of violence in the Ituri region. "Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die," said Oona King, a former Member of Parliament, "so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."
Mawazo has launched a campaign on Change.org asking Steve Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, to commit to making an iPhone with conflict-free minerals from the Congo by Christmas 2013. In the five weeks since it's launched, nearly 50,000 people from more than 75 countries have signed it.
Apple says it has made some progress in improving its environmental record (though Chinese NGOs disagree) while pressure on Foxconn, the maker of many electronics including the iPhone, may be improving worker happiness at its suicide-plagued plants. But could the post Jobs era at Apple – in which employees charity donations are now matched by the company – mean more tangible improvements in its supply chain too?
Woes of an Unintended Embargo
Whatever expectations we as consumers have for the companies that make our gadgets (and our gold jewelry for that matter), the federal government now has requirements, at least on paper. Last year's landmark Dodd-Frank financial reform act, named for Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, contained an amendment (by then-Senator and now Kansas governor Sam Brownback) that requires American companies to notify the SEC if they use conflict minerals. The intervention already seems to be driving conflict-mineral mining down in the DRC. In October, the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo wrote a letter (pdf) to the SEC declaring that the bill was "working": "The armed group Front Democratique pour Ie Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) has less control over tin, tungsten and tantalum mines in the DRC's Kivu provinces then it used to."
But in December, a new U.N. report offered a conflicting view: since Dodd-Frank's rules are still being decided by the S.E.C., amidst opposition from companies and industry groups, international trading firms have virtually stopped all purchases from Congo. "(This) has mainly led to a loss of production and increased criminality, which I think everyone would agree is not a great result," Gregory Salter, who worked as a consultant for the U.N. report, told Reuters.
As companies from around the world withdraw from Congo altogether over the uncertainty of regulations and fear of a public relations disaster, many legitimate artisanal mining operations have closed down, the victim of de facto embargos. "In fact, when the United Nations Group of Experts considered such sanctions in 2006," Shannon Raj writes in the Southern California Law Review, "experts examined the potential humanitarian fallout from such sanctions and warned that [they] could hurt the livelihoods of as many as 2 million artisanal miners and their families. Similarly, a joint study by the London School of Economics, the British government, and Belgium's Ghent University indicated that a ban on minerals from eastern DRC would threaten the livelihoods of a million miners and could actually worsen the DRC's conflict.
Even though Dodd-Frank's enforcement mechanism has not yet gone into effect, it's already causing unintended consequences in eastern Congo. Congolese sales of tin ore—used to solder circuit boards together—fell more than 90 percent in May alone. In an op-ed in the Times last summer, blogger David Aronson reported that "local miners, high-level traders, mining companies and civil society leaders" have roundly condemned the law, which he calls "a catastrophe":
In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.
The pastor at one church told me that women were giving birth at home because they couldn't afford the $20 or so for the maternity clinic. Children are dropping out of school because parents can't pay the fees. Remote mining towns are virtually cut off from the outside world because the planes that once provisioned them no longer land. Most worrying, a crop disease periodically decimates the region's staple, cassava. Villagers who relied on their mining income to buy food when harvests failed are beginning to go hungry.
By driving unemployment, the de facto embargo is making former miners more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups. And as Aronson notes, Dodd-Frank is driving prices of coltan far down, a delectable prospect for the Chinese, who also make a lot of cell phones, and who don't operate under any such restrictions.
The solution may not rest in better technology, as Jobs hoped, but in a more nuanced enforcement regime (the Customs Bureau is probably better equipped than the SEC to handle imports of naughty materials), more focused aid for honest mining operations, and better transparency of the mineral trade in Congo. Considering the new Western aversion to Congo sparked by Dodd-Frank, determining which mines are funded with bloody money may only get more difficult. "It's an incredibly complicated situation and place, and there are no easy answers," says Alvi.
Without easy answers, the problems of the DRC run the risk of being forgotten – or being sloppily "solved" – by the people who don't live there. We are not likely to have conflict-free gadgets very soon. But we can start by using those gadgets to remind Apple – as well as the makers of all sorts of other pretty things, and the politicians who do or don't regulate them, and those of us that buy them – that their impacts are not so pretty.