Fighting the Spread of Conflict Minerals

How to stop unwittingly aiding war in Africa.

Posted: 01/28/2011 06:00 PM EST
Filed Under Africa Political

Chances are that without even knowing it, you’ve supported violent armies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—armies that torture, armies that rape, armies that have left millions of people dead. That’s because for years now, both the Congolese army and the rebel group the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which have been in the throes of a brutal war, oversee valuable minerals that go into a whole host of people’s favorite products. Your cellphone probably has these so-called “conflict minerals” in it, as does your computer. And every time you buy something that contains conflict minerals, in a small way you’re supporting the brutality that’s terrorizing the DRC.

The four main minerals in question are tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, and the DRC and its neighboring countries are rich in all four. The Congolese army and the FDLR have taken control of vast ores of these minerals, and they’ve established global export networks through which to funnel them in exchange for money to fund their warring. This elaborate network is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to end the export of conflict minerals: It’s said that by the time the metals reach major electronics companies, they may have gone through as many as seven companies in the supply chain. The result is Apple incorporating conflict minerals into iPhones while having no idea of the chaos it’s aiding.

According to a new law passed last year, public companies using any of the four big Congolese minerals need to report to the U.S. government the process by which they ensured the minerals were not controlled by rebel forces. Any company that can prove they aren’t using conflict minerals can then stamp their goods with a “DRC conflict-free” tag. Companies that can’t prove they aren’t involved with rebel groups can still sell their goods, but they run the risk of being embarrassed by negative press.

Naturally, companies like Wal-Mart and Target, which benefit greatly from cheap minerals out of central Africa, are attempting to skirt this law. One argument they make is that by asking companies to stop using conflict minerals, even regular mining operations will suffer, as American corporations will be too apprehensive to involve themselves with the region at all.

To do your part to help end the use of conflict minerals, start by reading more on the problem at the Enough Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity around the world. From there, you can also commit to buying conflict-free goods or send a letter to the 21 largest electronics companies in the world to let them know you would prefer products that don’t contain conflict minerals. According to the Enough Project, the message you send should be simple: “If you take the conflict out of your cellphone, I will buy it.”

Image:  Jonathan Hutson / Courtesy of enoughproject.org

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