'Blood cell phones' worsen crisis in the Congo

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Your shiny new 3G iPhone may be helping fuel the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Lots of people know about "blood diamonds" such as those highlighted in the 2006 hit movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio. These are diamonds that help fuel wars in the countries they come from as warring parties fight over control of the diamond mines.

Very few people, however, know that their cell phones may be doing the very same thing. That's because almost all electronic equipment, including cell phones, contain an element called tantalum that has properties that make it an important part of things like capacitors in electronic devices. Tantalum capacitors are used in laptop computers, pagers, mobile phones and game consoles like Sony's Playstation.

Tantalum comes from two minerals, columbite or tantalite, which collectively are known as coltan. Eighty per cent of the world's coltan comes from the African country the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it has been blamed for helping fuel vicious civil wars since 1996.

In its latest Congo mortality report, the International Rescue Committee found that 5.4 million war-related deaths have occurred in the Congo since 1998. In other words, as Amy Goodman from Democracy Now said in her January story, "Congo: The Invisible War," a loss of life greater than September 11 occurring every two days. The vast majority of these have been from preventable, non-violent causes such as disease and malnutrition âe" easily treatable conditions.

Tantalum ores are found primarily in Australia, Canada, Brazil, and central Africa, with some additional quantities originating in Southeast Asia.

One of the major global coltan buyers is the Australian mining company Sons of Gwalia. Sons turns the coltan to tantalum ore which it sells to companies including Germany's Bayer subsidiary H.C. Starck and the American company Cabot Corp. Those companies refine it for sale to the electronics industry for use in capacitors.

Cabot Corporation is a Boston-based global chemicals and materials company. This is according to the biography of former Cabot CEO, Sam Bodman âe" now George Bush's Energy Secretary. According to a 2006 Cabot press release, the company entered into a new three-year tantalum ore supply agreement with Sons of Gwalia that year. In 2004, Australia's Sidney Morning Herald reported that Cabot was Sons' largest tantalum concentrate customer.

That same year, Sons of Gwalia announced an agreement with H.C. Starck on a new 800,000 pound per year tantalum supply contract for the calendar years 2006 to 2008. Sons said this represented approximately 25 per cent of mined tantalum required by the global tantalum industry at the existing demand levels.

Two former Canadian prime ministers also have links to mining in the Congo. Brian Mulroney sits on the board of Barrick Gold that, according to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, operated a gold mine in the Congo's Haut Uélé District until 1998. In the mid 1990s Joe Clark was both leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and a special advisor on Africa for the mining company First Quantum Mineral, according to a 2007 report by The Dominion. First Quantum's website indicates the company is still doing business in the Congo.

However, while former prime ministers have been active in the Congo, Canadian governments have been almost completely silent on the issue. This is despite the fact that the United Nations has issued several reports that are highly critical of illegal corporate exploitation of the country's minerals. Maurice Carney of Washington-based Friends of the Congo agrees with the reports, "Eighty percent of the population live on 30 cents a day or less, with billions of dollars going out the back door and into the pockets of mining companies."

So, it is against this backdrop that today Apple releases its eagerly awaited 3G iphone that, like the first iPhone, is already creating huge demand. In 2001, the New York Times reported that a year earlier, exploding demand for tantalum powder created a temporary worldwide shortage, contributing to Sony's difficulties in getting its new PlayStation 2 into American stores, as well as to a tenfold price increase on the world tantalum market.

So the obvious question is does the new iPhone use Congo coltan? Several calls to Apple's corporate office âe" as both a journalist and a concerned customer - failed to get an answer to that question.

So what can people do who don't want to be indirectly fueling a war but aren't ready to stop using their phones? Carney suggests three things:

1) Call their cell phone manufacturer and ask if their phones contain Congolese coltan.

2) Do what they can to make sure their personal savings or pension money is not invested in companies doing business in the Congo.

3) Support the Congolese people by raising awareness of the war.

He also says that recycling cell phones can help by reducing overall demand. Cell phone recycling services are available in some Canadian cities. Switching phones less often also helps lessen demand. When asked what manufactures can do if they want to make sure their products don't contain Congo coltan, Carney said it's not about them getting Congo coltan out of their products.

Instead he said, "They can use their enormous power to pressure their governments to take action on the Congo."

However, considering the deafening silence on the Congo from all sides, including the Canadian government, if companies don't feel pressure from consumers they won't be very motivated to upset the very profitable status quo.

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