The violent and bloody origins of your smartphone

By Stephanie Bossett 

Metals used in the manufacturing of electronic devices could indirectly fund bloody wars in the central Africa

The everyday portable electronic device has evolved at a fierce pace over the last 20 years. These products have become increasingly powerful and steadily more space-efficient – cramming more technology into limited volume, thus creating an increasingly versatile gadget. In order to achieve this, powerful components called tantalum capacitors are used in the making of circuit boards, which devices like mobile phones are made of. These small capacitors are made of tantalum, an element which is a derivative of the metallic ore coltan.

Central African nations are responsible for around 44% of the global mined tantalum production. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone there are 13 coltan and cassiterite (another mineral used in the production of electronics) mines, 12 of which are fiercely controlled by armed militias. These viciously violent groups use the financial gain from the mining of these resources to fund their brutal stronghold of large areas of Congo.

For the last 20 years, Congolese militias been responsible for the systematic rape, mutilation and murder of 50,000 Congolese men, women and children in a bid to oppress the local population and maintain strategic dominance in a theatre of ethnic war. They are notorious for forcefully recruiting children as young as 11 into the army (the boys fight, the girls are used as ‘sex slaves’). It is thought there are around 30,000 child soldiers in Congo alone.

Part of the reason the militias have gained control of this natural resource is the Congolese government’s prohibitive fee of $500 for mining licences, resulting in a reality where a staggering 90% of the mining carried out in Congo is illegal and unregulated.

Neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda operate legal cassiterite mines, however once the mineral ore arrives in South East Asia to be refined to metal, its source becomes untraceable. Consequently, there is a frighteningly high possibility that companies like Alcatel, for instance, purchase conflict coltan and cassiterite for the manufacture of their products.

Slowly, the electronics giants are waking up to the brutality of this situation and are taking small steps to check the origins of the sourced metals. The stricter the companies become, the more the mining situation in Congo will have to improve and be regulated. This, it is hoped, will lead to a decreased control by the militias, who would relinquish authority of these mines due to diminished financial gain.

The modern purchaser of a smart phone is willing to pay up to £500 for a gadget which is indirectly contributing to unspeakable violence in Africa. Since all mobile phones are created with coltan and cassiterite derivatives, the consumer is left with little choice: blindly purchase a gadget without sparing a thought as to how it was built, boycott these products or pester the likes of Apple, Samsung and Nokia until they implement a strict tracing system. Whatever you choose, this devastation should not be allowed to persist unchallenged the way it has been for the last couple of decades.