Defining Conflict Minerals

images of coltan, cassiterite, gold ore, and wolframite
Photo by Rob Lavinsky. –CC-BY-SA-3.0

Note: This post was written by Illini Gadget Garage staff member Jarrett Zook.

One hallmark of modern society is that technology has facilitated communication that was previously impossible due to insurmountable distances. Accordingly, cell phones play a vital role in the majority of Americans’ lives. For example, in a recent poll Time magazine found that a whopping 84% of Americans could not even last a day without their cell phones. The capacity of cell phones has increased rapidly over the past decade and smartphones have emerged to take a dominant role within the market. While smart phones may be user friendly, the supply chain that they are created from is not so simple. Numerous elements are used in smart phone manufacture and 70 of the 83 nonradioactive elements can be found within them. These elements come from all corners of the world and are representative of the global supply chain that is common in the production process. Unfortunately, some of these elements are purchased from unscrupulous warlords that use profits to further human suffering.

Extracting resources from conflict zones for the purpose of fueling war related activities has a long and tragic history. A commonly cited example in the minds of many people was portrayed in the movie Blood Diamond. This movie portrayed how profits from selling conflict diamonds contributed to civil unrest in Sierra Leone. The term “conflict commodity” actually emerged in the late 1990s in reference to diamonds that were financing strife in Angola and Sierra Leone. Presently, the term “conflict mineral” is often used and describes minerals that fund militia groups and the extremely brutal warfare that they engage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict minerals extracted from the DRC are widely used in modern technological devices and the term itself typicallys refers to Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten, and Gold.

Conflict minerals in the DRC are largely located in remote mines found in the eastern regions of the country. The DRC has long suffered from a low human development index and rampant corruption. The government is based in the Western city of Kinshasa and its control over the country is often tenuous at best. Moreover, conflict has ravaged the country for the past 20 years and the eastern mining region is largely under control of warlords. Various rebel groups contest over the valuable resources and employ brutal tactics. Oftentimes, child soldiers and slave labor is used in order to achieve their aims. The welfare of people is given no quarter by these local militias and they are only concerned about selling minerals at a maximum profit, so that they can improve their military arsenal and propagate warfare. Sadly, the fierce fighting in the DRC has taken six million lives since 1996 and an alarming number of women have been raped during this period as well.

Now that we know the abysmal conditions under which these minerals are mined, it is important to understand how they make it into the global supply chain. The first step involves smuggling freshly mined minerals out of the DRC. The chaotic history of the region has resulted in the formation of a well-organized and deeply entrenched smuggling network. In fact, a 2014 UN report estimated that a staggering 98% of gold produced in the country was smuggled out. All conflict materials are smuggled out of the DRC at high rates and into neighboring African countries. In places like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya conflict minerals are mixed with minerals from more legitimate sources and refined. From there these refined minerals are sold to smelters around the world, where they are prepared to be used in the manufacture process. It is certainly unfortunate that materials used to finance such awful causes have the potential to make it into our supply chain. However, as consumers we are not helpless in this matter. There are agencies and companies that try to manage the source of materials that they use in manufacture. Furthermore, recent government regulations both domestically and abroad target how conflict minerals are sourced and are aimed at eliminating their usage. In my next post I will address these developments.