Posted at 11 a.m., Oct. 31, 2013

Electronics potentially bought with blood

Conflict for minerals fuel America’s need of technology

Minerals extracted from Central Africa for use in the world’s technological gizmos are paid for, in part, by rape, murder and slave labor.

The cost of phones, computers and other electronics does not reflect merely the trending market values of a growing desire for “smart” technology. An expense beyond the monetary is added in the name of staying on top of the technology game, a price sometimes paid in blood.

Central Africa is a hotbed for conflict surrounding the extraction of minerals vital to our virtual livelihoods. At its center is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Businessweek reported the DRC provides up to 14 percent of the world supply of tantalum—a mineral used in most mobile phones.

Raise Hope for Congo, a non-governmental organization dedicated to raising awareness for the on-going crisis in the Congo and a division of the Enough Project, estimated tens of thousands of women have suffered from sexual assault and gender-based crimes at the hands of the militant forces fighting over rights to the mineral mines. It also placed the number of deaths throughout the years of conflict at 5.4 million and estimated 2 million people have been displaced.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted July 21, 2010, mandated companies report whether they use conflict minerals. The act defined conflict minerals as “columbite-tantalite, also known as coltan; cassiterite; gold; wolframite; or their derivatives; or any other mineral or its derivatives determined by the secretary of state to be financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country.”

Cassiterite is the ore that provides us with tin, which is utilized in soldering and electronic circuits.

Tantalum is used in capacitors, which store electricity for phones and other electronics and is derived from columbite-tantalite. Tungsten is extracted from wolframite, a mineral implemented in several tool applications, including welding and drilling, as well as a contact for electrical sources. Gold is used in jewelry and as a conductor for circuitry used in laptops and computers.

Laramie County Community College currently has no policy in place that would protect against purchasing from Section 1502 noncompliant companies, said LCCC’s Chief Technology Officer Chad Marley. However, he provided a parts breakdown of the college’s recently ordered desktop units, which revealed the computers had been assembled with components from highly rated compliant companies including Intel and Microsoft, yet the lack of a policy may fail to prevent future purchases that include the components in question.

Recycling grows increasingly important in the battle against the exploitation of mineral-rich third world countries. Bloomberg reported that last year 37 percent of the world’s overall supply of gold was the product of recycled sources.

“Our computers are used, in some capacity, for five years,” LCCC’s Marley explained. “Afterward we recycle them.”

Increased recycling rates may be a global step in the right direction, but corporations unwilling to sacrifice profits continue may be feeding violence in conflict zones.

The smelting process complicates the accountability for minerals originating from conflict areas. Only a few factories in the world can smelt tantalum. The responsibility is left with each factory to monitor who supplies its minerals. If a factory shrugs its responsibility, the mineral’s origin is mostly lost through smelting.

Although measures are set in place requiring corporations to report the use of conflict minerals in their components, not all companies are completely compliant.

There is debate that the Dodd-Frank Section 1502 allows this to continue as certain wording, in the law, appears to let companies acquiring third-party components off the hook.

Large firms such as Apple, Dell and Samsung often do not make their own minor components. These same minor components may consist of the minerals causing so much contention in the DRC and its surrounding countries. While this law may help in some ways, it appears to leave large holes for major companies to slip through mostly unaffected.

One of the law’s doubters, Forbes’ contributing writer Tim Worstall, pointed out a loophole that stated companies issuing conflict mineral reports do not need to include information pertaining to third-party components.

“We believe an issuer (an entity that puts a financial asset in the marketplace) should not be viewed…as contracting to manufacture a product if its actions involve no more than…affixing its brand, marks, logo, or label to a generic product manufactured by a third party,” according to an excerpt from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s final report regarding Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Raise Hope for Congo compiled a list, available at raisehopeforcongo.org, illustrating how well major corporations comply with Section 1502’s requirement to file conflict mineral reports. Among the best rated were Apple, Intel and Microsoft for taking steps beyond the set requirements. Corporations such as Canon, Sharp and Nintendo were revealed as the worst, taking few—if any—steps toward ensuring their components were blood-free, as shown by the organization’s data.

The struggle is not one sided; some have made it part of their goal to end the exploitation of countries whose voice is not often heard among the town criers of the global village.

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) are two organizations aimed at ridding the world’s supply chain of its conflict-polluted merchandise. They stand against the unethical means of acquiring materials from impoverished nations. More information can be found at gesi.org and eicc.info.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a movement formed after World War II to help Europe regain economic stability, also opposes the use of conflict minerals. In 2012, the OECD put forward a “due diligence” policy to help its 34-country membership better understand how to avoid fueling further conflict in Central Africa (oecd.org).

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) are two organizations aimed at ridding the world’s supply chain of its conflict-polluted merchandise. They stand against the unethical means of acquiring materials from impoverished nations. More information can be found at gesi.org and eicc.info.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a movement formed after World War II to help Europe regain economic stability, also opposes the use of conflict minerals. In 2012, the OECD put forward a “due diligence” policy to help its 34-country membership better understand how to avoid fueling further conflict in Central Africa (oecd.org).