At the celebration of all things capital known as the D conference, put on by the Wall Street Journal, Vagina Monologuist Eve Ensler raised the topic of the coltan trade in the Congo. It was a classic piece of “awareness raising” in the Southern California celebrity cause tradition, where a bit of conscience was paraded out to the crowd of venture capitalists and technology acolytes but no conclusions drawn or consequences demanded. During the discussion with the Journal‘s Kara Swisher, Ensler brought up widespread sexual assault in the Eastern Congo as part of ongoing regional warfare.
Rather than calling for a boycott of the minerals from the region, which help power almost every device shilled by Walt Mossberg in his WSJ columns, Ensler suggested that giving women the very cellphones the country prostitutes its natural resources to provide the developed world with might help. Also? Companies could be more vigilant in their sourcing of raw materials-and then market their electronics as “rape-free.”
Ensler, for one, would happily pay a premium. In the audience, the head of the Consumer Electronics Association said that these are “complex” issues and couldn’t be simply solved the way Ensler was suggesting.
Go ahead, take a moment to let the nausea-inducing vertigo of cognitive dissonance pass. How in the hell did we get to a point where advertising a mobile phone as “rape-free” was even necessary? Much less something for which you might have to pay extra? The answers lie in the dark hearts of the paragons of business virtue who profit from Africa’s prostration, sunning themselves that May day in Carlsbad, California
Metallurgy stretches back thousands of years in Central Africa, with iron smelting having been developed independently thousands of years ago by Bantu-speakers from West Africa. But the real fun begins with the arrival of Europeans. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II established the Congo Free State as his own private colony, and distinguished himself as by far the most brutal of European colonial rulers in Africa-literally cutting the population in half in a matter of decades in order to capitalize on the rubber trade, thereby establishing an awful precedent of cheap life and labor in the region’s economics.
In the 1960s, leftist nationalists lead by Patrice Lumumba managed to wrest control of the country away from Brussels, only to be betrayed by the United States, who supported a coup by Joseph Mobutu in the grand tradition of favoring fascist dictators and kleptocrats over democratically elected leaders with even the faintest blush of red. By providing arms, training and troops, the U.S. and Belgium collaborated to make sure that the free flow of cheap minerals from the region continued, and Mobutu saw to it that corporations didn’t need to concern themselves with labor or environmental protections.
By the time Mobutu fled the country in 1997, it was rumored that the balance of his Swiss bank accounts neatly matched the national debt.
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, armed and experienced Hutu interahamwe militias crossed into the Congo. They established bases in North and South Kivu in order to attack the now Tutsi-led Rwanda. But the new Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, seeing an opportunity, made common cause with Mobutu detractors like Laurent Kabila, and along with Ugandan-backed forces, used the cover of deposing Congo’s strongman in order to send troops into the country and wrest control of its mineral wealth. All of which has left an alphabet soup of warring factions in the eastern part of the country, and an estimated 5.4 million dead. (In a British documentary, one such warlord, General Laurent Nkunda, speaks of having met with “Rebels of God” from America-leaving one to wonder if he wasn’t supported by…. The Family?)
Simultaneously, an explosion in demand for a mineral used in small, powerful capacitors for electronics like cell phones and laptops stoked the conflict. Tantalum, appropriately enough named after the tortured Tantalus-birthed by the Greek goddess of mines, Plouto, and punished for the sin of boiling his own offspring in cannibalistic sacrifice-became a hot commodity. In 2000, with the release of the Sony Playstation 2, the price of tantalum rose as much as 800 percent.
As it happens, 80 percent of the world’s supply of the mineral, in the form of columbite-tantalite ore (known colloquially as coltan) lays in the hills of eastern Congo.
Slave labor proliferated, with the ore becoming a form of currency, not to mention arms purchases by warring factions. Here, rape played a role as a form of inter-ethnic terror alongside the pillage. Slavery involved the sale of women to miners as camp stewards and warm company. The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center promised to take a stand at a meeting in Brussels in 2001. But eight years later, little has changed.
The ore is handled by multiple layers of unaccountable middlemen within the country, then exported to South Africa or China for further processing. Once the ore is refined into powder or ingot, it’s largely untraceable. The electronic components are themselves simply cheap commodity products produced in factories along the Pearl River.
A telling statistic is provided by the annual United States Geological Survey report on tantalum supplies [PDF]: while Australia, Brazil and other countries are listed as producers, the vast majority (46 percent) imported is simply listed as “other.” And you can guess where “other” sources are found.
While reportedly Apple has said that it doesn’t source Congolese tantalum, there is no statement that effect on its site or anywhere else and the company generally refuses to discuss the topic. Like most American companies, Apple doesn’t like to ask too many questions of its suppliers and fabricators in China beyond “how much will it cost,” so chances are the favored technology brand of the awareness-riddled cultural elite (including yours truly) is chock full of the stuff.
Also chock full: hybrid and electric cars, solar energy systems and almost any other technology that technophiles promise will save the developed world from the external costs of industrial commerce (at least those that might actually drown our lovely waterfront property). In fact, tantalum-based “ultra-capacitors” are being researched as possible replacements for batteries on much larger scales than cell phones, such as “smart grid” distributed energy storage and the power trains of electric cars-Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk was working on such technology while at Stanford.
In a telling moment, Susan Wojcicki (of the Google Wojcickis) stepped forward at the Ensler discussion to ask if money couldn’t be made by selling rape-free components. Google is, of course, entering the cell phone and portable computing market themselves, though it can add another layer of unaccountability by arguing that it merely supplies the software and server-side applications for these devices. It also holds close to its heart the philosophy that humanitarian and environmental issues can not only be solved, but profitably solved. In abject injustice, commercial opportunity!
To illustrate the arguments against upsetting business as usual, take for example the language of trade groups that argue against boycotts or sanctions. For one, they call for more observers on the ground, because we all know how effective handfuls of well-meaning white people have been in stopping injustice and humanitarian horrors in Africa.
On the other hand, nobody wants to take agency and opportunity away from the “artisanal miners“-a neat turn of phrase suggesting traditional craftspeople trying to hold onto their unique cultural legacies. Instead of children forced into backbreaking labor at gunpoint.
And of course the injustice doesn’t end in Africa, but continues straight through China (where an employee of a fabricator who lost a prototype iPhone recently committed suicide after being beaten, and pesky allegations of sweat-shop conditions imposed by Apple suppliers persist) and ultimately returns there in the form of electronics recycling-one of the potential “rape-free” sources of tantalum, unless you consider the poisoning of whole communities a form of rape.
The thing is, I’m not going to suggest that you can somehow make personal decisions that would have an impact-such thinking is fallacious, if comforting. Because even as information technology abounds, informed decisions seem harder to come by. “Awareness” proves at best a form of rationalizing behavior on the individual level that in the aggregate remains tragic. Americans and Congolese alike are so tightly woven into the fabric of global capitalism, there’s no real choice but complicity.
Jackson West figures most folks would be happy if Silicon Valley threw some press releases and maybe NGO donations at the problem.