The Congolese coltan in your iPhone is to blame for six million deaths and hundreds of thousands of rapes.
We should all be celebrating the life of Steve Jobs for sure. His inventiveness changed the way we work, communicate and, most important, the way we listen to music. There are few retail thrills that match walking into an Apple cathedral to overpay for one of Jobs's genius inventions and their upgrades. But I'm ever mindful that the hunt for the Congolese coltan that powers the "shuffle" on the iPod that revolutionized my music experience has destabilized a region. That in the conflict over mining Congolese coltan, women have been the biggest victims of the pillage.
Coltan is the black tar-like mineral that when refined to powder holds the high electric charge that stores the spreadsheets in our laptops, the contacts in our cellphones and the thousands of songs in our IPod libraries. Sixty-four percent of the world's coltan is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The worldwide demand for newer, more mobile technology drove armed rebel miners from the Congo's neighbors, most notably Rwanda, to illegally enter into the DRC and mine criminally, ceaselessly and with impunity. These rebels’ main clients are companies in Ohio and South Carolina, who pay hundred of millions of dollars for illegally mined coltan from Congo. These American Midwestern processing companies in turn sell them as chips not only to Apple, but to Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Motorola, Sony and Ericsson and many other companies whose products we've held in our palms. When Congolese natives began organizing into their own rebel cadre faction and arming themselves and mining the land themselves, major conflicts erupted, resulting in more than six million deaths, with hundreds of thousands of raped Congolese women dead center in the conflict. This isn't the first time interests have played a major role in the destabilization of the Congo. The CIA's role in the assassination of the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba and the installation of the 30-year dictator Joseph Mobutu impoverished the mineral rich region, rendering it a postcolonial mine for Western (and increasingly, Chinese) corporations.
As thousands of Americans join the Occupy Wall Street movement demanding among other things transparency from multinationals and living wages, we should be thinking responsibly on a global level as well. As we demand that companies like Nike cease using child labor and Starbucks and others, prison labor; we should also demand that companies like Apple source responsibly when making our beloved iProducts. With true fair trade, determined by the people of the Congo and without the intervention of armed rebels working in the interests of companies in Midwestern states in the U.S., the Congo could have the opportunity and wealth to build its own infrastructure and stabilize itself.
Of course this is a dream, but as we celebrate the life of America's most important recent dreamer, I say the dream is barely enough, and only the beginning.
For more information, please watch the Ask the African video series at Friends of the Congo.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)