Hey, you! Yeah, with the iPhone. Did you know that people may have been murdered so that you could use that gizmo to send a message to your BFF?
And you with the laptop. Women could very well have been raped so that you could log on and check the market report.
You should also know that the mines where the components of this technology are dug out are often “manned” by people, including youngsters, who have no choice and are de facto slave labor.
Does that make folks who use modern technology—which is just about everybody nowadays—unwitting accessories to murder, mayhem, and oppression?
Only inadvertently. If they understood the dynamic—the way these minerals move from mine to gadget—they would try to do something about it.
“We play a role in it as consumers,” says Katie Hoselton, who graduated from Cal Poly in June, but not before prodding the Academic Senate to pass a resolution calling on the university to investigate its purchase of electronics using the tainted minerals.
The violence at the minerals’ source and the road they take before they end up in our electronics are “hard to get your mind around,” Hoselton said.
“You don’t know what you can do about it.” Until, she said, you realize that “it’s supply and demand that I can have an impact on.”
The components—gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum in particular—are mined, in part, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a region where control of the minerals and their wealth is a dirty and deadly business.
“Various armed groups compete violently for control of the mines, mineral transport, taxation … and smuggling … the minerals across the border,” says John Prendergast in The Enough Moment, which he co-wrote with actor/activist Don Cheadle.
If you’re thinking, hey, that’s halfway across the world, what can we do about it, the answer is: plenty. And in fact, people like Hoselton have been seeking to fix the problem for years, out of the media spotlight and unknown to the general population.
The lack of U.S. media attention to a part of world where millions are suffering and dying is another, depressing column. “I couldn’t get over it,” Hoselton marveled. “No one knows about it.”
The minerals in question are called “conflict minerals,” and the way to ameliorate their use here is by a process known as “ethical sourcing.”
The resolution at Cal Poly, for example, encourages the university to research purchases of products that may be using conflict minerals and make a commitment to buy “conflict-free products.”
In a nutshell, what Hoselton, the Enough Project, and others are going for is getting those who purchase materials that contain conflict minerals, and those who produce them, to make sure that they are not mined and marketed on the murdered and molested bodies of the Congolese who live near the source.
This is not as easy as it may sound, and the various producers have been generally reluctant to look into it, although that is changing.
“Companies are trying to figure it out,” Hoselton says. “It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
There has been some success. Intel, for example, has created the world’s first verifiably conflict-free product containing Congolese minerals.
But there is more to do.
If the buyers of this technology—that’s us—lean on the companies who market this material and the people who buy it, that can only be to the good. Eventually, enough people will listen to make a difference.
That inquiry could take the form of formal motions like that which emanated in Cal Poly’s Academic Senate, as it has at several other universities. But you could also ask your boss at work about it when he’s buying equipment. You could ask the people who sell you your next laptop whether its components are “conflict free.”
If you do that at the local emporium, it will be embarrassing for you, and they won’t know what you’re talking about. But if it catches on, it could become a very loud inquiry indeed, across the nation and the world.
At this point, for us as consumers, it’s about raising public consciousness. The media and politicians, focused on whether Hillary Clinton will run in 2016 and other trivia, aren’t going to do that for us. Every little thing we do could eventually help change the way these minerals get into our homes, and perhaps save a life in that not-so-irrelevant-as-we’d-like-to-believe corner of the world.
If you want to learn more, go to enoughmoment.org.
Bob Cuddy is an award-winning journalist and former columnist for The Tribune. He lives in Arroyo Grande. Reach him at 489-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.