In 1996, Finnish cellphone company Nokia released the Nokia 9000 Communicator. It was one of the first cellphones to contain its own operating system; and consequently, it became the widest-selling phone of that time period.
While it wasn’t labeled as such at the time, it can be considered one of the first – if not the first – smartphone. It also contained its share of metals.
Meanwhile that same year, the former nation of Zaire was invaded by the battered country of Rwanda. This invasion sparked a six year long war (with a one year respite) that proved to be the deadliest conflict since World War II. The Congo Wars were largely funded by the pillaging of mines filled with rare metals. These metals are the same kinds that can be found in laptops, MP3 players, and smartphones today.
What Metals Are Mined in the Congo?
Approximately 200 mines throughout the Congo produce the ore of the metals tantalum, tin, and tungsten. These minerals provide around $100 million a year for the Congolese military and are used in virtually every major consumer electronic product including smartphones and tablets.
Why Are They in My Smart Phone?
Tantalum, tin, and tungsten are used in cellphones and other electronics for different reasons, but they do have one thing in common. That is their ability to withstand the extreme temperatures within smartphones. Tantalum – even though classified as rare – is found throughout the world. It is largely used to control the vibrating in your cellphone.
Tin, one of the most common minerals and one of the most harmful to your health, is used to solder circuit boards. Meanwhile, tantalum controls the flow of the electricity inside your phone. Its ability to conduct electricity so well is what allows the phones to be so small.
Are People Still Fighting for These Metals?
Unfortunately, yes, people are still fighting, killing, and even raping for control these metals. While the Congo Wars are technically over, the violence has not ended. Over half of the mines are controlled either by rebel groups or the Congolese National Army. Many of the miners are forced at gunpoint to work forty-eight hour shifts; while violent acts, including sexual assault, are often committed against those who dare protest the militias.
In order to control the malicious acts in the Congo, the United States issued a law in 2010 requiring electronic companies to reveal their sources of conflict minerals (as tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold) are now known. While these laws are noble steps in the right direction, the regulations are thought have been undermined by members of the international community.
What Can We Do to Stop The Violence in the Congo?
Outside of convincing everyone in the world to become luddites, there is no sure fix to this problem. The most immediate thing you can do is urge electronic manufactures to steer clear of metals mined in the Congo and avoid buying from those who don't.