Technology’s Dirty Secrets Series- Mining Coltan
Technology makes for a convenient life. Easy communications. Easy shopping. Easy at home and easy at work. We depend on technology for our new electric and hybrid cars, more efficient appliances and dependable access to information. Technology makes life easy…for most people.
The world we live in has hidden corners where others suffer for our easy life. They are exploited, poisoned then buried under mountains of technology trash. These people are resigned to accept it as the way life is. This is the dirt and blood that coats the billions of dollars made manufacturing, selling and disposing of technology. In this series the African-American Cyber Report will expose the dirty secrets of the technology industry starting with the mining of the raw materials.
Modern technology manufacturing begins with the extraction of certain raw materials from the earth. Cellphones and computers have inside them rare and hard to come by minerals and metals. These are often mined in African countries by people working in conditions and for wages that are simply inhuman.
The mineral coltan is found almost exclusively in Africa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Refining coltan creates a metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. This electrical charge is crucial to the tiny circuit boards that power our iPhones, laptop computers, tablets and many other high-tech devices. The men who mine this rare and vital mineral dig using simple picks and shovels and sometimes their bare hands sometimes for 12 hours a day. Workers often carry the heavy sacks of raw coltan out of the mine on their backs. Working conditions are abysmal and dangerous and there is no safety equipment or procedures.
Even though this mineral is vitally important to the technology industry wages are shockingly low for this crippling labor. We may pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for our electronics. Yet these miners toil under the hot sun daily earning just $5 a day for a 12-hour day. The minimum wage is $3 a day. Living in the horrific poverty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo these men have no choice but to endure these grueling and dangerous conditions. But it is not always men suffering in these conditions. Children as young as ten are employed in the mines and deaths are a regular occurrence.
Not only are people suffering for our technology products but the land is suffering as well. Mountains are often ripped apart to mine coltan leaving the land scarred and polluted. Rivers are often filled with silt from mine runoff that sometimes contains mercury, cyanide and other dangerous chemicals. Large tracts of forests are wiped out in search of the minerals destroying wildlife habitats.
To compound the dangers and back breaking labor is the fact that these mines are often the prize among warring groups. The wealth created by the mines have fueled repeated wars not only among rebels and warlords but also with the government of the Congo for more than 20 years.
The National Congress for Defense of People or CNDP militia have used revenue from the sale of coltan to buy weapons and ammunition in their armed struggle against the army of the DRC. Thousands of innocent miners and civilians have been killed or driven from their homes as a result of these wars. As with all wars atrocities are frequent including rape, mutilations and the use of child soldiers.
A searing 2001 United Nations Report on the ‘Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources’, laid blame squarely on the sale of coltan and other precious minerals to multi-national corporations as the “engine of conflict in the DRC.”
Apple, Samsung and other electronics manufacturers admit they use coltan from these mines to make the smartphones we depend on everyday. Without shame, these companies say they will will continue to do so.
In 2015 Apple reported to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission “that it is committed to driving economic development and creating opportunities to source conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries.”’
The company went on to say that its suppliers must adhere to its code that; “every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
In a statement Samsung said it “recognizes the seriousness of human rights violations and environmental pollution problems of mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
The U.S. Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act has led to a crack down in the use of so-called “conflict minerals.” The law requires western corporations to certify the origins of suspicious resources used in technology manufacturing such as coltan thus shutting off the cash financing warlords.
Apple, aware of the hardships suffered by those mining the mineral, says it is dedicated to using only conflict free minerals in their products.
An Apple spokeswoman added: “The simplest path to calling Apple products conflict-free would be to redirect our demand through a small subset of smelters that are either conflict-free verified, or aren’t sourcing from Central Africa. But this approach would do little to influence the situation on the ground, something we care deeply about. That’s why we have been working to expand the number of verified sources in this region, so that more people can earn a good living, in better conditions.”
Samsung Electronics also supports the ban on conflict minerals saying,; “As a global manufacturer of consumer electronics, we understand the moral and ethical responsibility we have to our consumers and broader society. We remain committed to proactively participating in conversations and actions around the world to ban the use of conflict minerals and ensure responsibly source, conflict-free products.”
Now you know.