Monday, June 26, 2017

Coltan, The Congo and The Bite in the Apple

In my last blog, The Tree of Life and Knowledge, I wrote about the separation of life and knowledge throughout human history -
how we have overreached since the Paleolithic. The excessive use of our technology lead to the end of one culture, one civilization, after another - and now threatens our very planet.

There is another way we separate life from knowledge, and that is the great divide between all the information we receive through our digital devices, and the lives of those who have mined the materials and manufactured those instruments.
Though all cell phones use the material I’ll be discussing, I am going to focus on Apple, given that fruit as a symbol of knowledge, going back in our history.   Full disclosure: I am neither a technophobe nor techno-refuser, and I own Apple devices, including the one I am typing on.

The need for constant information, constant connection and entertainment, has  been implanted in us over the years and to some degree we might equate it with happiness. So let’s begin on the knowledge side of our great divide, and describe a visit to our local « temple » of information:  
When you enter an Apple store, it is so white and brightly lit, it practically gleams.  

You look at the new iPhones, and the staff  tell you all the things the new one can do that your old one  cannot. 
New features, faster and smarter, plus an updated version of the genie named Siri, who will give you even more information, get you places faster, and play whatever song you ask for, and find your lunch…your Handmaiden? Your new sense of well-being comes in a white box, your phone and cords cradled within as though they were handing you the Holy Babe.   

Is there a cost here, beside what you just paid?  Some of you may have seen the documentary made in the factories in China where your iPhone is made: The racket, the long hours, the lack of any concern for the well-being of the workers, the exhaustion. We all know that the exploitation of a cheap labor force is responsible for most of the products and clothes we have in our homes, though we may be reluctant to acknowledge that.

But there is another misfortune, and that is the condition of the miners in the Congo who provide us with the Bright and Shiny. We’re going to  leave our gleaming white world and enter the dark world we also have created, for isn’t the Congo the stereotypical heart of darkness in the Western mind? And since that post-colonial black jungle of our imagination does not shed light, what could we possibly know of the conditions where an essential ingredient is mined?

Our technologies require minerals and metals. One is coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore.When coltan is refined it  can hold a high electric charge, and that’s what capacitors need - and capacitors keep all of our devices charged.  80% of all coltan comes from the Congo, and it is the very definition of a conflict mineral - a substance that is mined in a place where the profits finance militias who enact terror.

There have been wars raging in the eastern Congo since 1994. 5.4 million have died, 3 million have been displaced, a million women raped. It is considered the worst conflict since WWII.  (Council on Foreign Relations).

I interviewed Chingwell Mutombu about the conditions in her country. She described an entire generation dislocated or dead, and thousands of children adrift without parents - 8 and 9 year olds now head of families, trying to provide for younger sisters and brothers. It is these children who can be found working for pennies in the rebel-run mines. The maximum wage is about $5 a day. No food is available, nor medical care. The miners have no machinery, no tools beyond their hands and shovels, if they can afford one.  They work 12 hours a day. Coltan is mined with sluice boxes, the same method used by gold miners in 1849. 

The UN has accused Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda of smuggling coltan over borders to be processed into an essential powder in China - or claiming that their companies own the smelters for the process. Coltan is also processed in other countries, like Brazil and Japan, who claim not to use the ore from conflict mines. But how do they know?

In June 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs admitted the depth of the problem in an email sent to a reporter at Wired magazine: “Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.” (


Apple admits they use coltan mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo to make the smartphones that fuel our 24 hour lifestyle:  "Apple remains committed to driving economic development and creating opportunities to source conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries,’ Apple told the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2015. Apple says its suppliers must adhere to its code. » (Newsweek) Apple does attempt to check on the coltan supplied from the DRC, but the problem of determining from which mine a processed powder comes from is still very difficult.

There is much more to this story, including SEC attempts at regulation and UN involvement. There are Multilayer Ceramic Capacitors (MLCCs) that do not need coltan. They are used for MRIs and other devices, and could be modified for cell phones - but their cost would be slightly higher and their use would lower profits. No comment necessary, right?

The sleek phones cradled in their white packaging are the end product of terror and tragedy. The mining of coltan is a pernicious activity based on the exploitation of desperate people. It is a very dark example of how we literally enslave people, denying  their autonomy, their dignity, and finally, given the dangers of the work, we may deny them their very lives. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the separation of life and knowledge.


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