Monday, September 18, 2006

People dying so you can have a Razr V3

Ok, to be fair people are dying for any model of cell phone. What, you think I'm kidding? I've told you before how Western excesses and the desire for convenience are responsible for the deaths of people, including children, around the world. In this case, it just so happens that the cell phones we all rely on use lithium-ion batteries, which require metals found only in war-torn Africa.

Cell phones, laptop computers and other portable electronics rely for their power on lithium ion batteries, which aren't just made of lithium. They contain copper and cobalt (often found together in a single ore called heterogenite) as well as nickel and iron, and generally have to be replaced every one to three years. (Up to 6 million will need to be replaced all at once with the recent recall of Dell and Apple laptop batteries). The DRC has 10 percent of the world's copper reserves and 30 to 40 percent of its cobalt, and with the prospect of a stable central government, the country's importance as a source of those materials for batteries and other uses is expected to grow.

But why does this lead to human rights abuses?

A horrific war among the DRC military and various rebel armies officially ended in 2003 after taking 3 million to 4 million lives. But fighting continued long after that in the northeast, fueled by mining profits. First-ever democratic national elections in July have set up an October runoff election in the DRC, along with great hope for the future. Meanwhile, disarmament and integration of the armies is being carried out. But soldiers frequently receive little or no pay, and that provides a strong incentive for them to squeeze what they can from the cassiterite business.

And you can guess how the soldiers operate that "business".

That's how Muhanga Kawaya, a miner in the remote northeastern province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), described his job to reporter Jonathan Miller of Britain's Channel 4 last year. Cassiterite, or tin oxide, is the most important source of the metallic element tin, and the DRC is home to fully one-third of the world's reserves. Some cassiterite miners work on sites operated directly by the country's military or other armed groups. Working in the same area are "artisanal" miners who are theoretically independent, like prospectors in America's Old West. But the cassiterite they extract is heavily taxed by the soldiers -- when it's not just stolen outright.

With a land area as vast as that of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado combined, the DRC has only 300 miles of paved roads. To reach one of the many cassiterite mines in the virtually roadless northeast, 1,000 miles from the national capital Kinshasa, Miller's team followed a 40-mile footpath that, he reported, was as "busy as a motorway. Four thousand porters ply this route carrying sacks of rock heavier than they are. Each of their 50 kilogram packs of cassiterite is worth $400 on the world market. Government soldiers often force porters at gunpoint to carry the rocks free of charge; if they're lucky, though, they can make up to $5 a day." (Watch Channel 4's gripping, award-winning report here.)

Feeling guilty, sad or horrified yet? If not, just read the last couple of paragraphs.

Reducing demand for coltan, cassiterite, heterogenite and other ores -- by reusing, recycling, and simply not buying so damn many electronic goods so often -- cannot by itself ensure safe jobs and living wages for people in the Congo or anywhere else. But a seemingly insatiable hunger for mineral resources can and does distort economies in some of the planet's most desperate locales. Relieving some of that distortion through reduced consumption at least gives nations and people a chance to build better lives independent of the ups and downs of world commodity exchanges.

Back in North Kivu last year, Channel 4's Jonathan Miller asked some of the people trudging along that muddy trail if they knew what the burdens they carried would be used for. He reported, "Not one of them knew their cassiterite was destined for the electronics industry in the rich world. One man claimed he knew: 'It goes to America,' he said, 'to rebuild the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.'" I don't know whether Miller told that man the real story -- that within only a year or two, much of the tin in the rocks on his shoulders, having served its purpose in the information economy, would end up lying unused in a dresser drawer or trash heap.

Hey, I have a cell phone. I'm not saying you shouldn't. I'm just saying that maybe you ought to reconsider how often you need a new one, and make damn sure you turn in your old one for recycling. Plus which, it doesn't hurt to write letters to your politicians and the corporations that are selling these phones in such massive quantities.

I'll make it easy for you. On the right side we have a link to Project Vote Smart. Just go in there and put in your zip code and it'll supply you with the names and links of your elected representatives. Verizon Wireless corporate contacts are here. I'm going to say that you probably want to write the "Public Policy Communications" person. Sprint PCS is here. Probably the "Financial and Corporate Communications" for that one. Cingular is here. And probably it's the "Public policy initiatives, regulatory and legislative issues" person.


Xanthippas said...

It's horrifying that such abuse can occur, and sad but hardly surprising that we're so ignorant of it. Still, this is one of those things that each of us can do something about...something that may seem small, but will make a huge difference in large numbers.

Fan Boy said...

The only ones who whine about this are the delusional social acolytes that believe humanity has evolved in stead of just finding new ways to manipulate old crimes to fit the modern life.

When you have a system irrespective of money but based on items having an attached value the price paid can always be counted in human suffering.

We could get rid of money, but that would not fix the problem. The problem is the ascribed value people place on things which does not limit payment to money but requires flesh and blood.

Society has always displaced the poor, ignorant, diseased masses historically speaking and will continue to do so because despite our attempts we can not evail against our our damnable nature.

Nat-Wu said...

Don't be such a pessimist. That old Calvinist thinking that humans are inherently evil is not true. The vast majority of people don't wish to cause any harm; they just don't know that so many seemingly innocuous purchases have a real human price. Believe me, this is exactly the kind of thing that can be ended with government regulation and should be.

Fan Boy said...

I believe most people don't want to cause harm.

I am also not blind to misunderstanding the tangable difference in good intentions and the path trodded down most commonly that is paved with them.

History being the counter is on my side and intentions are folly for the fodder to spring false hope from.

Nate said...

"It does bear pointing out that few people love and use cell phones more than Africans themselves. "Orange" and "MTN" callboxes were ubiquitous
in my experience in Cameroon.

I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that none of us is goingto help lessen human rights abuses in the Congo by replacing our lithiumion batteries less frequently. Similarly, getting Americans to conserve gasoline isn't going to solve oil-dependence. Skyrocketing prices

Electronics will be made with whatever resources are available for ascheaply as possible. The only way around this is to make resources from vulnerable and unethical nations more expensive.

But bear in mind how many people are going to suffer when you do that,too. All of those soldiers buy food and goods with that money, which supports their villages. In Africa, almost any solution can start to look as terrible as the problem it was supposed to solve."

Nat-Wu said...

"Africa" refers to a continent. It is of little relevance that Cameroonians love and use cell phones while it's the people in the DRC that are suffering. That's like saying people in Mexico will quit buying gas because prices are high in the US.

"I'm going to go out on a limb [etc.]" I'd say that's erroneous logic. Obviously if we recycled the tons of material that are in old cell phones, the need for fresh supplies will decrease, as well as the market price, thus providing a disincentive.

You talk about market price; well, if the fuel economy of cars was more well-regulated, that would be a direct correlation to less gas usage. In other words, cars that got twice as much milage use half as much gas. How can you say that regulation wouldn't work? That's a ridiculous claim.

Hey, we banned ivory and look what happened there. While real ivory is now of such astounding value that there continues to be a market incentive to procure it, since it can't be moved on the legal market, there's a huge incentive not to try. It made a difference.

I doubt those soldiers are really doing much good with their stolen money. That's the old idea that any money that comes into a system is good for the whole system. It's a discredited idea. If those people can't secure a living by farming or working, that's another problem we need to solve. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Nate said...

"Africa" refers to a continent. It is of little relevance that Cameroonians love and use cell phones while it's the people in the DRC that are suffering. That's like saying people in Mexico will quit buying gas because prices are high in the US.

Only South Africa is even remotely as different from other African countries as the US is from Mexico. Also, the DRC itself is filled with cell-phone users. My point, though, is that even if the first world magically becomes less wasteful, the third world is chomping at the bit to consume every bit as much, and will not pay much regard to our ideas of "restraint".

I doubt those soldiers are really doing much good with their stolen money.

Ah, how many thousands of development fiascos have begun with words such as these?

Nat-Wu said...

"Only South Africa is even remotely as different"

Well I don't think Egypt can be lumped in with Ghana, and Somalia's rather different from Liberia. And your point is and is not true. For more advanced systems like cell phones, two things have to exist: infrastructure and disposable income. I know that there are plenty of cell phone users in Africa, even in Mogadishu (although that's far from saying that Somalians "love cellphones"). But by and large the system doesn't exist. Again, with Somalia, while there are people in Mogadishu who have such access, the rest of the country is pretty much barren.

But you're really missing the point anyway. Even if some other nation which is a neighbor to the DRC becomes home to a million cell users, how does that change our responsibility not to fund human rights atrocities? Our behavior has nothing to do with how any other nation chooses to behave.

"Ah, how many thousands of development fiascos have begun with words such as these?"

Actually I didn't espouse any development plan, I said we need to quit funding their tyrannies and dictatorships. Of course we could get all that ore that we need by the simple influx of businesses that could use modern mining methods, which could even employ the locals, both peasants and soldiers. Is that a development fiasco? I'm not saying we need to pull an Iraq here. We don't even need to reduce our dependence on their ore. We just need to change how we get it. And you know, that's eminently possible. If you like the idea of using a market solution, we can do that. So I really don't see what your objection is.

Instead of saying why we shouldn't do something that I haven't espoused, tell us how to fix the problem. We do try to offer some ideas here, not just complaints.