Consumer demand for electronic devices, such as cellphones, laptops, and cameras, has been driving child and forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mines for years. While the exploitation of the country’s mineral resources and its people are being mitigated, there is still a long way to go.
The eastern Congo produces 20 to 50 percent of the world’s tantalum. The rare mineral’s main use is in tantalum capacitors in electronic products such as cellphones, DVD players, gaming consoles, and computers.
In 2004, photographer Marcus Bleasdale, who has been documenting war in Congo since 1999, was able to capture images of the mines where adults and children work mining tin, tantalum, tungsten (collectively known as “blood minerals”), and gold. Earlier this year, Bleasdale, along with New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, went back to eastern Congo to further document the nation’s exploitation.
On their mission, the pair witnessed child soldiers, poverty, and paradox. While Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s richest countries on paper, due to its vast mineral resources – diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, etc., it is, in fact, “one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world.” According to Gettleman,
It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop – or camera or gaming system or gold necklace – may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
Gettleman notes that the current state of Congo resulted from a series of events in surrounding African nations and Congo itself. In the 1960s, Congo was granted independence from Belgium, resulting in a flood of insurrections and a power grab by the young, military man, Mobutu Sese Seko. The dictator was known for his violent rule under which he used state funds to buy off his enemies and allowed Congolese children to go hungry, the New York Times reports.
In 1994, Congo’s neighbor, Rwanda, was facing a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsis, which left up to a million dead. Many of the killing Hutus fled to eastern Congo. Rwanda then partnered with Uganda and invaded Congo, ousting Mobutu. They grew tired of the leader they installed in Mobutu’s place and invaded Congo again, leading to “Africa’s first World War,” in which Chad, Namibia, Angola, Burundi, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were also involved.
During that time, foreign troops and rebels seized hundreds of Congolese mines. “The rebels funded their brutality with diamonds, gold, tin, and tantalum, a hard, gray corrosion-resistant element used to make electronics,” Gettleman writes.
Due to international pressure, in the early 2000s, foreign armies officially withdrew their forces, leaving the Congolese infrastructure and people in ruin. Congo was left with around 5 million dead, and its eastern region remained a battle zone.
According to a United Nations Security Council report, released in 2003, natural resource exploitation, in particular the export of tantalum for use in electronic devices, can be directly linked with “funding the conflict and the resulting humanitarian and economic disaster” in the Congo.
In 1999 and 2000, the world prices of tantalum increased significantly, leading to a large increase in the production of coltan – a mineral composed of columbite and tantalite, which is refined to produce tantalum. According to the UN report:
Part of that new production involved rebel groups and unscrupulous business people forcing farmers and their families to leave their agricultural land, or chasing people off land where coltan was found and forcing them to work in artisanal mines. As a result, the widespread destruction of agriculture and devastating social effects occurred, which in a number of instances were akin to slavery.
Towards the end of the decade, human rights groups and American lawmakers took a strong interest in addressing the Congo’s mineral trade. In 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill into law, requiring American companies to disclose the origin of their products, including the minerals used to make them.
Some companies, afraid of the negative PR from using conflict minerals in their products, stopped buying conflict minerals. An unfortunate, but short-term, side effect of Dodd-Frank on miners and locals was that after companies became concerned with using conflict-free minerals, the Congolese government issued a 6-month ban on all mining and trading activities in the eastern region. The ban was lifted a year later.
Fortunately, “green,” or conflict-free, mines began to emerge shortly afterward, when the government began inspecting mines. “The army kicked out the militias and rogue soldiers and sent in newly trained mining police to monitor the sites. Armed groups that were trading in tin, tantalum, and tungsten saw their profits drop by 65 percent. Congo’s mines were starting to clean up,” Gettleman states.
Yet, there are still far fewer conflict-free mines than not. According to National Geographic, only about 10 percent of mines in eastern Congo are now conflict free.
“The whole industry has to get to a mature point where there are many more mines that can be classified as green mines,” Bleasedale told Co.Exist. “And once that critical mass happens, then I really feel that the Congolese people will see the difference to the local economy. It’s just getting to that tipping point.”
Using green mines is a better option for locals than pulling business out of the eastern Congo, according to Bleasdale. The Enough Project notes that living conditions for locals deteriorated under the mining ban that resulted from the conflict minerals provision of Dodd-Frank, despite the provision’s good intentions. Without the mining operations, all aspects of local business suffered.
Many in the electronics industry are working on conflict-free technology. Apple purchases its tin, tantalum, tungsten and other minerals from conflict-free smelters, Intel is working on a conflict-free microprocessing chip, and HP helped to launch the Conflict Free Smelter (CFS) program, which verifies and maintains a list of conflict-free smelters, Co.Exist reports.
However, other companies have not taken steps to address the use of conflict materials in their products. The Walk Free Foundation, which fights modern slavery, alleges that Nintendo, the world’s largest video game company by revenue, and the manufacturer of several of the most popular gaming consoles, has not been actively auditing its supply chain.
Last year, the Enough Project compiled a list of 24 leading consumer electronics companies, ranking the companies by their use of conflict minerals.
Via: Company Rankings on Conflict Minerals 2012 by the Enough Project.
“A child is put to work at a militia-run mine in Watsa.” Via: Marcus Bleasedale/ National Geographic.
“A boy waits his turn for spoonfuls of rice and beans in Pluto. In some areas of eastern Congo up to 40 percent of gold miners are children, often forcibly recruited by militias.” Via: Marcus Bleasedale/ National Geographic.
“Already a soldier, a boy with an assault rifle pedals to base camp during fighting in the Ituri region in 2003.” Via: Marcus Bleasedale/ National Geographic.
“Gold is now the most lucrative of conflict minerals. Illicit profits from tin, tungsten, and tantalum have dropped 65 percent since 2010, when the campaign to link minerals with violence began gaining ground.” Via: Marcus Bleasedale/ National Geographic.
All images by Marcus Bleasdale appear in National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary Photo Issue.