Blue Gold — the trail of misery leading to your iPhone

By Enya Kamadolli

(This was a heartfelt essay written by my 12-year-old daughter that I felt compelled to share)

Blue Gold

We use technology every day, but do we ever think about how those gadgets are made?

(In this article, I refer frequently to that familiar device so many of us carry called an “iPhone”, but it represents any and all consumer technology devices.)

Large companies and corporations in the developed world are fueling strife in distant lands: the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo(DRC), and the unfair treatment of workers in Chinese factories.

Coltan, a rare mineral that is essential to technology, is it at the center of the conflict in the Congo because 80% of it is found in this war-torn land. And after it is mined, it is subjected to hours processing via menial labor in China before a rock becomes an iPhone.

The Tantalum in Coltan makes capacitors — these are very important components of the processing boards in modern electronics.

A blue stone showed up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Coltan, also known as “blue gold”, is crucial to almost all of the electronic devices of the day. It is exploited by multiple countries around the DRC, (including Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi) to fund militias that are fighting for control of the region.

Although coltan miners are treated brutally, 90% of young men still choose to work in the mines. Children as young as ten work twelve hour days, unsheltered to the sun, using rudimentary tools. But the Congolese do not have a choice. The majority of them are farmers, but farming takes time, and lack of roads makes selling crops hard. Often, harvests are looted to feed local militias. To Congolese’ eyes, mining pays well, even at the minimum wage of $3 dollars a day, they can make $10 a week, which compares well with the average worker in the DRC who makes $10 a month.

A good worker mines a kilogram of coltan a day, valued between $65 and $600, but are paid only $3 for their labor. That is completely unjust. So who pockets the profits? The people in power, of course. In an 18 month period, Rwanda made $250 million dollars to fund their militia, all from coltan exploitation.

So why isn't each of these countries using coltan to become rich and stable? Because of what is called the “resource curse” — a phenomenon where countries who have more natural resources see less economic development than countries with fewer resources. All effort gets focused on exploiting such resources and no other parts of the economy develop.

In countries like the DRC, this has led to a very unstable government, and only those in power get rich from coltan. People who try to stand up for the miners get killed by local militias, and their families get raped. Whole villages have been burned down, just to “set an example”. People have fled to neighboring Tanzania for refuge but then suffered again for lack of food and harassment at the hands of local warlords.

All this to make an iPhone :-(

The blue stone went to China

Moving on to China, where coltan is exported from Africa and then turned into tantalum capacitors. Factory workers toil in grueling conditions. They work in eleven-hour shifts, often through the night. They have to concentrate for hours on end doing monotonous work, with only a half-hour meal break. They have a so-called “Workers Union” where workers can bring their complaints, but that is controlled by their superiors who do not care. People who try to protest the workers’ plight get fired or arrested. Hours and hours of work, all for a measly salary, with deductions for food and board.

All this to make an iPhone :-(

And onto the display tables at the Apple Store

Americans use technology containing coltan multiple times a day and we are mostly unaware of it. But we are connected to the blue stones in other, less known ways as well. Coltan is often sold to big American corporations such a Cabot, OM group, etc. — it is big business for some American firms.

Big technology companies that sell their products in the U.S. such as Apple, Sony, and Samsung buy/use Coltan from the Congo, most of which is processed in China.

Apple will continue to do so despite being aware of the trail it leaves behind. Apple told the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in February this year (2015).

“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,”

Samsung says it

“recognizes the seriousness of human rights violations and environmental pollution problems of mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo”.

It is very hard to trace where your coltan comes from, and how your suppliers treat their workers. Factories in China hide their underage child workers during visits by reporters and inspectors. So when you buy your next iPhone, please look past its shiny cover and into its depths to see the countless hours of grueling labor and unnamed lives lost.

All this to make an iPhone :-(

The Environment is a Victim too

Miners, operating far from food sources, are forced to rely on hunting for bushmeat. Wild gorillas are already almost extinct, and yet, in some reservations near the mines, wild gorillas populations have halved.

In factories that process coltan, the toxic waste that is emitted by the factories lies in landfills, polluting the atmosphere. Near some factories, people have to wear masks, and the emissions can do permanent lung damage.

Seeking Solutions

There are a couple of obvious solutions: to avoid using“conflict coltan”, and to make sure the factories where you process and use coltan treat their workers fairly. This is challenging to implement because big corporations get cheap labor and lower costs.

So it’s the big corporations that can actually make a difference, right? If enough people see the trail of misery leading to the components in their iPhone instead of just a shiny screen, the big corporations might change. As consumers, we wield that power over them.

We Can Make A Difference

List of Electronics that use Coltan/Tantalum Capacitors (not an exhaustive list) :
• Laptop computers
• Cellular phones
• Jet engines
• Rockets
• Cutting tools
• Camera lenses
• X-ray film
• Ink jet printers
• Hearing aids
• Pacemakers
• Airbag protection systems
• Ignition and motor control modules, GPS, ABS systems in automobiles
• Game consoles such as Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo
• Video cameras
• Digital still cameras
• Sputtering targets
• Chemical process equipment
• Cathodic protection systems for steel structures such as bridges, water tanks
• Prosthetic devices for humans — hips, plates in the skull, also mesh to repair bone removed after damage by cancer
• Suture clips
• Corrosion resistant fasteners, screws, nuts, bolts
• High-temperature furnace parts.
• High-temperature alloys for air and land based turbines


Engaging long form reading: Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart (realistic fiction)