Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Death in Africa for Cell Phones in the U. S.

According to some estimates, four to ten million people have died in the war that has raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996. Africa's third-largest country was known as Zaire until 1997, and began its sad history of relations with the West as the Congo Free State in 1870, when King Leopold of Belgium made it his personal property. The despicable exploitation and cruelty that Leopold wrought upon millions of Africans in his efforts to extract natural resources such as rubber and diamonds reduced the population by half in thirty years, and has ever since stood as a paradigm of human rights abuse. Today, the Congo holds another material that the rest of the world covets: colombo-tantalite ore, commonly known as "coltan." And although there is no single individual like King Leopold who can be held responsible, the Congo is once again suffering horribly as the rest of the world steals its treasures.

Coltan is the world's main source of tantalum, an essential element in the manufacture of miniature electrolytic capacitors, also called "pinhead" capacitors because of their size. Without these capacitors, portable electronic equipment such as cell phones, PDAs, and iPods would either be much larger or simply wouldn't work at all. When only expensive military gear used tantalum capacitors, the demand for coltan was small. But now that consumer electronics manufacturers use millions of them, coltan is a hot commodity in the world mineral market.

The U. S. has no significant natural deposits of coltan. Other than Australia, the largest reserves are in the Congo. Makers of consumer electronics buy tantalum capacitors whose ingredients very likely come from a country where illegal mining, smuggling, and full-scale warfare over coltan-rich regions is endemic. The detailed history of the Congo and coltan is complex and tangled, involving multinational companies in the U. S. and Europe, migrations of refugees from Rwanda, interference by the government of Uganda, and general bad behavior on all sides. (For more information, see the article by Keith Harmon Snow and David Bernouski at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/JulAug2006/snowpr0706.html.) But the simple fact is that much of the coltan that makes its way into the world's supply chains of electronic components was mined either illegally or under political or moral conditions that most people would be horrified at if they knew.

So what is an electronics engineer to do? Avoid any designs that use tantalum capacitors? That's hardly practical, and for one thing, you can't tell just by looking whether the tantalum in a particular device came from Australia, the Congo, or somewhere else. But if engineers simply shrug their shoulders and say, "The supply chain isn't my problem—if a part's price is right and meets the specs, I've done my duty," then the professionals who are in the best position to know about the situation and make decisions based on it are turning their backs on the problem.

In Europe, certain activist groups have publicized the connection between portable electronics and the murderous events in the Congo, chanting "no blood on my cell phone" and calling for an embargo on tantalum from illegal mining. But embargoes and boycotts are not as effective as professionals who organize to recognize a problem and take action against it. At the very least, those who specify and use components whose ingredients may have been extracted at the cost of human suffering should be aware of the sordid background behind some innocent-looking electronics parts. And if their consciences moves them to do something about it, so much the better.

Engineers and technology specialists should learn from the food industry, where product differentiation has been raised to a high art. Most consumers can't tell organic broccoli from the other kind simply by tasting it. The U. S. Department of Agriculture has developed a "certified organic" system which tells the consumer that organic produce was grown without pesticides and so on. What the consumer pays extra for is not necessarily a better taste, but the knowledge that his vegetables were grown in a certain way. Some makers of clothing feature the fact that their products were not made under sweatshop conditions that prevail in certain parts of the world. Again, the intrinsic quality of the goods is not in question. What is being sold is a feeling or sense that the purchase is somehow making the world a better place.

Why can't this principle be applied to consumer electronics? First, an auditing system of supply chains would have to be implemented so that one could trace supplies of raw materials all the way back to the mine. Given the corrupt nature of some governments and institutions, this would be hard. But if certain firms managed it somehow and made enough of a big deal with publicity and advertisements, the fickle hand of the consumer might begin to favor the firms taking such trouble over those who were not making sure that their products did not use materials that contributed to human exploitation. It sounds silly and idealistic, maybe. In 1820, the idea of banning slavery in the U. S. sounded silly, idealistic, and dangerous. But those who believed in it persisted, and now, slavery is virtually unheard of, at least in the West.

Here is a challenge that goes beyond engineering, but needs engineers and other technologists to implement. The only thing that is lacking is the will on the part of those involved to do something.

Sources: Besides the Snow and Bernouski article noted above, Snow has many other articles on exploitation of African nations by multinational corporations at his website http://www.allthingspass.com. The boycott efforts are described briefly in a BBC article at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1468772.stm.

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