Congo, or more accurately, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is said to be the Saudi Arabia of precious minerals. Gold, silver, diamonds, copper, uranium, and other minerals are found here in huge quantities. It is this richness in high-priced minerals, along with corruption and racism, that has reached unimaginable suffering to its people.
Congo – a 21st century Tragedy
Today, Congo is being wracked by a calamitous civil war – a conflict that is said to be the deadliest on the planet after the Second World War. The strife which started in 1996, has already claimed 5.4 million lives, and there's no end in sight. What is fueling this unending war of rape and genocide?
The simple answer: the world's hunger for Congo's minerals.
The southeastern Congo, where most of the mineral deposits are located, is controlled by dozens of warlords and rebel factions. It is a lawless land where violence is the norm and rape and massacres are effectively used to cow people into abject submission.
The warlords control the different quarries and mines in this area – approaching millions of dollars in revenue from these "conflict metals" smuggled into neighboring countries like Uganda and Tanzania, and thence to the markets in Dubai and Europe. For as long as the flow and trade of these precious metals continue, the war will continue in unending cycles of violence and misery for the people of Congo.
Coltan inside your cell phones
Coltan or columbite-tantalite is one of the minerals mined in the DRC by slave labor controlled by these armed factions. It is the mineral used in the production of Tantalum, a highly corrosion resistant metal widely used in capacitors of electronic products like cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. The cell phone you're using right now (or that PC you're reading this article on) could very well contain Tantalum from coltan mined in the Congo.
The millions of dollars in revenue from mining and smuggling coltan, gold, and other minerals are used by these armed groups to purchase arms, food, medicine, and ammunition. Armed and well-fed, the militias will keep the war going and will continue to terrorize their slave laborers in those primitive mines. Thus, for as long as there is demand for coltan, and for as long as the trade on Congolese coltan is not prohibited or banned by governments and the electronics industry, there will always be money to enable the different factions to continue waging war.
How we can help break this deadly cycle
On a larger policy-level scale, governments and industry stakeholders in the US and other countries must work to strictly track the sources of the metals used in the production of electronic products and prevent African "conflict metals" from getting into the production stream.
There is talk among jewelry trade groups and major retailers to enforce a system of tracing the sources of gold in their production – a measure similar to banning so-called "blood diamonds" from the market place. Hopefully, similar measures will also be adopted among electronic manufacturers in sourcing the tantalum used in their products.
On the individual level, we can extend the life cycle of our cell phones and other electronic items and recycle cell phones we can no longer use. Recycling just half of the 100 million or so cell phones we discard every year will help limit the demand for fresh production materials like tantalum, thus lowering the demand for coltan.
"Recycling old cell phones is a way for people to do something very simple that could reduce the need for additional coltan," says Karen Killmar, associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo, an institution that actively encourages its visitors to recycle cell phones .
In our highly interconnected modern world, there is rarely nothing that we do that does not affect something else in other parts of the world. Who would have thought that the simple act of buying and owning a new cell phone every 18 months (our average for replacing old cell phones) actually help fuel a deadly conflict in the heart of Africa.