“KIDS in Congo are being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America can kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms.”
This was said by British MP Oona King in 2006, when the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo touched heights of brutality uncommon even in that deadly conflict, a conflict which has claimed millions of lives from its start in 1998 and has seen staggering levels of sexual violence.
What MP King was talking about is the so-called PlayStation war. When the PlayStation 2 gaming console was released in the year 2000, it sold its entire inventory — close to one million units — in a single day. The demand was insatiable, and millions more customers were placed on waiting lists. Naturally, this demand led to a corresponding increase in the demand for the raw materials that are needed to manufacture these consoles. In particular, the demand for coltan — a rare mineral that, once processed into tantalum, is essential for the production of capacitors used in many electronic devices such as mobile phones and computers — skyrocketed.
There has been little awareness about conflict minerals.
Overnight, the price of coltan jumped from $80 a pound to $380 as manufacturers scrambled to obtain whatever supplies they could. What this has to do with the war in Congo is that this ill-fated land is home to the richest coltan deposits in the world, and with this dull black metallic ore suddenly becoming a prized substance, warring factions took note.
According to a UN Security Council report, coltan “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”.
Many of those slaves were children, many more died as a result of the terrible conditions they were forced to work in.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. You’ve no doubt heard of blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds as they are also known. This term refer to diamonds mined in the conflict zones of West and Central Africa in countries such as Sierra Leone, largely in areas that were then controlled by rebel groups.
As in the coltan mines, slavery and forced labour was rife. As in Congo, the battle for these mines and the revenue extracted from them perpetuated the civil war, swelling the coffers of the warring groups. Charles Taylor, the infamous Liberian dictator who sparked the first Liberian civil war, was notorious for his exploitation of locals in the extraction of these diamonds.
However, due to widespread awareness campaigns and activism the World Diamond Congress in 2000 agreed to strengthen and streamline screening processes in order to ensure the diamonds they purchased and marketed were ‘conflict-free’. That doesn’t mean the problem has gone away; suppliers have become more adept at covering their tracks and finding new sources. Just last year there were reports of blood diamonds being mined and sold in Angola.
When it comes to conflict minerals, however, there has been comparatively little awareness or campaigning. This is possibly because the war in Congo, is off the world’s radar. Possibly it is because diamonds are far more visible and evocative than a processed mineral buried in a transistor in your smartphone. Possibly this is because, unlike blood diamonds, there has been no blockbuster Hollywood movie on this subject. Or perhaps it is because diamonds are far less essential to our daily lives than the electronic gadgets that surround us.
There’s more: recently an Amnesty International report exposed the slave and child labour that is being used in Congo’s cobalt mines. Why cobalt? Because smartphones need longer lasting batteries and cobalt is essential to the production of those lithium-ion batteries. Why Congo? Because (once again) Congo is home to the world’s largest producer of cobalt, with output standing at 56,000 metric tons. China with 7,200 metric tons is a distant second. Now, with electric cars poised to enter the global market in a big way, cobalt may go the way of coltan.
This has always been the curse of Congo, a large and incredibly resource-rich land that, despite being fed on by human vultures for centuries, still has meat on its bones and treasures under its soil. A century ago, the monstrous king Leopold of Belgium ravaged Congo in his greed for rubber (lucrative thanks to exploding global demand), instituting forced labour and employing cannibal tribes to amputate the hands of those who failed to meet the rubber quota. Millions died, and the legacy of savagery and exploitation continues to this day.
Our world is a complex web of interdependencies and connections, and while we may be unable or unwilling to save those who suffer for our benefit, we can at least try and acknowledge them … and then buy the latest smartphone model.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2016