Where Our Bloody Gadgets Come From

Give your phone a really good smashing against the nearest wall and you'll get a little closer to one of the tech industry's bloody little secrets.

Sep 15 2011, 1:00pm

A member of a “Mai Mai” militia patrols his camp. Image: Tim Freccia

Give your phone a really good smashing against the nearest wall and you'll get just a little closer to one of the tech industry's bloody little secrets.

The unrefined metallic ore combulite-tantelite, better known as coltan, is the lynchpin in the finely-tuned inner components found in nearly every phone, computer, video game systems, car device – practically anything with an electrolytic capacitor. (These are the things that help modulate current in a circuit.) After mining, coltan can be refined into two elements: niobium (Nb), which is used to make the strong steel of pipelines and the superconducting magnets of MRI scanners, and a very similar element called tantalum (Ta).

And because tantalum can be made very thin – thinner than aluminum – it offers a very high efficiency per volume. That makes it very good for making the capacitors that help electronics, especially small ones, run for long periods reliably. Without coltan, our electronics would die sooner, and presumably some of us would soon shrivel up and die too.

Actually, that's not funny, because most of the world's coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to a brutal, decade-long war between rebel factions and occupying armies that's left 5.4 million people dead since fighting started in 1998. That makes it the deadliest armed conflict since World War II.

Watch Vice Guide to the Congo

For whom the cell tolls

Back then, the war was thought to be the result of tribal and ethnic rivalries, along with the Rwandan government's desire to pursue those who perpetrated atrocities during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. But a later UN investigation revealed something far cruder: since the mid nineteen-nineties, armed groups, including the occupying Rwandan military, had been fighting over control for the cobalt, uranium, gold and coltan embedded in the volcanic mountains of eastern Congo. In the meantime, they've been using the sale of these metals – to European and American manufacturers – to buy their bullets.

The resonances that emerge from this market-military nexus can be chilling. The apex of the most recent violence in the conflict in the Ituri region of DRC coincided with the launch of the Sony Playstation 2 in 2000, which drove global coltan demand to new levels, according to Toward Freedom, an advocacy group. The price of a pound of coltan skyrocketed from US $49.00 to $275.00 in the course of a year.

Meanwhile, amidst a flurry of dispatches that named eastern Congo the world's capital of sexual violence, one UN report in 2005 (pdf) also discovered that Rwandan troops and rebels were using prisoners-of-war and children to mine for the "black gold." "Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die," said Oona King, a former Member of Parliament, "so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."

Killer app

Without the help of governments, which have remained mostly silent, it's obviously up to corporations to police their own use of Congolese coltan and other dirty materials. The little attention that the moral economics of "blood coltan" have received have reportedly helped shift the industry away from the Congo; today, electronics manufacturers take pains to insure that they do not source coltan from Congo, but rather from Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Or at least to insist they do.

But take a look at Apple's responsibility report (pdf), and you'll find a complex and comfortable web of plausible deniability. The company requires its suppliers to certify that the materials in your iPhone, for instance, have been produced in a "socially and environmentally responsible process." The supply chain is long and complicated, says Apple, and it supports efforts to map and regulate that chain. Well, sort of: Phone World, a game that takes players on a rough-and-tumble tour of the iPhone supply chain, was just booted out of the App Store by Apple, citing its rule that "apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content" and "depict violence or abuse of children" will be rejected.

Sony also tries to avoid Congolese coltan, the operative word – in the midst of profits and consumer demand for more, cheaper – being tries. "The material suppliers source their original material from multiple mines in various countries. It is therefore hard for us to know what the supply chain mix is," a Sony spokesman told a reporter in 2008. "I am happy to state to you that to the best of our knowledge, [SONY] is not using the material about which you have expressed concern."

Since then – and especially since the passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which requires American companies to disclose their use of "conflict minerals" – large- and medium-scale coltan production in Congo has appeared to drop dramatically. That's helped put a dent in the country's export economy, and left much of the mining to smaller, "artisanal" miners, who are more likely to do business with less-than-scrupulous suppliers. The inevitable arrival of China, for instance, in the form of a recent $9 billion agreement over minerals, may be a boon to the Congolese economy, but it's also cast a darker shadow over the country's precious metals, and raised fresh questions about the risk, pollution, violence and corruption they foster.

Today, after years of suffering the deadliest conflict since World War II, Congo enjoys a delicate peace, maintained by UN forces and Rwandan militias. But that hinges in part on the hotly contested control of minerals like coltan. And, of course, on the shape our own demand for gadgets takes. If the peace does break, we'll have a better idea of where they got the money for all those guns.