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.