I had no idea when I bought my Nikon DSLR camera 8 months ago, with idealistic ambitions of shooting meaningful photojournalism and black-and-white landscapes, that my purchase instead implicated me in the continuation of a decades-long conflict. I had no idea that some of the minerals used to operate this camera were possibly mined from a soil soaked overlong with the blood of that conflict. And I had no idea that the events portrayed so cinematically by Leonardo Di Caprio in the film Blood Diamond were being replayed in another industry on a much greater scale; that of consumer electronics.
For anyone who is oblivious to the violence that has been raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since its formation as an independent state in 1960, when it shook off Belgian colonial rule, this resource-rich state in central Africa has been torn apart by various armed factions seeking to exploit its wealth. From the establishment of independent government in 1960, conflict between numerous, shifting rebel groups and central government forces has led to the oppression of millions of people; the subjugation of women and children in villages through systematic rape and torture; and widespread massacre.
It is us who are fuelling this conflict.
I mean ‘us’ in the sense that we in the global North are reliant on the minerals mined in this resource-rich state. We unwittingly buy minerals such as gold, tin, tungstan, tantalum – the latter a mineral that allows phones to be built on a microscopic scale. These minerals, extracted from Congolese mines, are in the electronics we use every day. In a consumer-driven chain, the metals and minerals in many items we buy from a range of companies can be traced back to mines controlled by armed militia groups in the Congo. From 2012-13, militia groups made a profit of up to $144 million from the sale of these minerals to companies such as Nintendo and Canon.
The issue, for companies as well as consumers, has been that it is incredibly complex to trace and differentiate between minerals that are extracted in a conflict zone and those that are extracted conflict-free. Various companies – notably in the car and aviation industries – have an abysmal record, having taken no effort to clean up their supply chains, ignoring attempts to tighten up mining legislation and trade regulations and disregarding moves by stakeholders. This overt resistance towards a conflict-free mining policy is one of the areas that the Glasgow Coalition for a Conflict-Free Campus is successfully mobilising awareness of these conflicts on campus.
Electronics companies including Intel, HP and SanDisk are those we do in fact want to buy from. These companies have started to make progress towards tracing and auditing their supply-chains, attempted to exercise leadership in industry-wide efforts and promote clean trade in the DRC. The aims of the Glasgow Coalition for a Conflict Free Campus mirror the global student movements sparked at Stanford University and across University of California campuses to transform purchasing policy. This has subsequently been adopted by up to seventy campuses across the United States. According to a report by Intel, “Tin, tungsten and tantalum that do not go through conflict-free programs now sell for 30 to 60 per cent less, thus reducing profits for armed groups trying to sell them. As a result, armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67%) of tin, tantalum and tungsten mines.” There are obvious benefits for the miners too, as they secure improved wages and greater socio-economic security through the promotion of conflict-free mining. Awareness has been raised and significant progress made by the Electronics Energy Citizenship Coalition and specialist NGOs such as Enough and Resolve.
Although conflict in the Congo is inherently complex, with ethnic division, intergovernmental rivalry over resources and horrific oppression of women, the mineral industry is just one offshoot, a symptom even, of a violent history that has plagued the region for centuries. By supporting organisational consumer shift towards companies that only purchase conflict-free minerals, we are ensuring that resource-driven aspects of the conflict hopefully plays less and less of a role. It is important to ensure that the companies from which we buy – and by extension, advocate and support – operating within the DRC itself are pledged to conflict-free mining. I am the first to admit that I wasn’t aware of the impact conflict zone mining in the DRC had and the consumer chain that directly linked me to it, in spite of having read books such as Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Burton’s book Blood River, an account of his journey following H.M Stanley’s famous expedition to the heart of this conflicted nation, exploring its incredibly stark and sobering history.
It may be an uncomfortable truth but if you own a Sony or LG mobile, you are could be indirectly complicit in fuelling DRC conflict. Taking black and white photos of Glaswegian landscapes with my camera, the new-found knowledge sat uneasily in my guts. I couldn’t stop thinking about minerals being hacked out of solid rock and rain-silted soil by miners forced to slave at gunpoint, to work with back-breaking medieval tools, to eke out a precarious existence in a fragile state. It’s a painful echo of Conrad’s account of Belgian imperialism in his novel Heart of Darkness as Europeans lived ignorant to suffering subjects that created their wealth.
Today, in 2014, these minerals stream so effortlessly into our carpeted living rooms and our iPad-layered offices, where a clueless consumer’s main concern is what their next profile picture on Facebook will be. Although few situations can be captured in black and white, my camera purchase offered me a sharp image of the consequence of mindless supply-chain consumerist culture. In this case, your consumer choices can directly influence the support available to marauding militia groups in their massacre of people in the DRC with weapons of machete, rifle or rape.
To gain a clearer picture of the situation in the DCR, have a look at The Glasgow Coalition against Conflict Group’s Facebook, and Tim Burton’s highly informative book Blood River.