Conflict Minerals and the Hidden Cost of e-Devices
Our e-devices contain all sorts of exotic materials, many of which, like tungsten, tantalum, and tin, are refined from ores that originate in Central Africa. Called "conflict minerals", they fund warfare in the Congo and neighboring countries. More people are said have been killed here than any conflict since World War Two. A recent court decision has potentially weakened an American law requiring companies to disclose conflict minerals content.
Global Witness has called attention to the violence of the materials' extraction in the 2009 report "Faced with a gun, what can you do?" "In the course of plundering these minerals, rebel groups and the Congolese army have used forced labour (often in extremely harsh and dangerous conditions), carried out systematic extortion and imposed illegal “taxes” on the civilian population. They have also used violence and intimidation against civilians who attempt to resist working for them or handing over the minerals they produce."
Time covered the report with the story First Blood Diamonds, Now Blood Computers?, a provocative title which was reposted and tweeted worldwide. The Enough Project created the Come Clean for the Congo video to specifically urge direct consumer action.
Sierra magazine reports, "Robert Mwiniyhali, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the [Democratic Republic of Congo, says] 'coltan extraction is still going on in some parts of the lowland sector of Kahuzi-Biega,' a national park specifically set aside for eastern lowland gorillas—which are often killed to feed hungry miners." Ironically, the threat to charismatic megafauna can often increase public awareness significantly beyond that generated by the threat to human populations.
The Washington Post reported in 2010 that the US's new financial reform bill includes a "Miscellaneous Provision" that "will require thousands of U.S. companies to disclose what steps they are taking to ensure that their products, including laptops, cellphones and medical devices, don't contain "conflict minerals" from the Democratic Republic of the Congo…It applies not only to electronics companies, which are major users of Congolese tantalum, but also to all publicly traded U.S. firms that use tin and gold...The law does not impose any penalty on companies who report taking no action. But the disclosures must be made publicly on firms' Web sites." It appears that publicly traded manufacturers of media equipment, as well as other specialty ICT gear, will be required to disclose their use of conflict minerals. Competitive and customer pressures should lead smaller firms to do the same.
It is likely that the new US conflict minerals law will extend beyond domestic public companies and impact the entire global supply chain. Electronics industry trade site PCB007 reported the same year:
"These new reporting requirements could have a significant impact on the entire electronics industry supply chain, much like the lead-free requirements of RoHS," according to Mikel Williams, Chairman of the IPC Government Relations Committee and President and CEO of DDi Corporation..."If the electronics industry thinks that the SEC regulations will only impact publicly traded companies, they need to think again," said Williams. The regulations, Williams explained, will flow down from the publicly traded companies through the entire supply chain from the OEMs to the solder manufacturers and everyone in between.
Opposition from special interests to the conflict minerals reporting continues, as it does for most provisions of Dodd-Frank. A US District Court ruling in August 2013 rejected a legal challenge to the law's conflict minerals provisions by the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Business Roundtable. These groups appealed and secured a partial victory in April 2014. The Wall Street Journal reports, "A federal appeals court, citing free-speech concerns, struck down part of a controversial rule requiring publicly traded U.S. companies to say whether their products contain certain minerals from war-torn central Africa...Still, the court stopped short of broadly overturning the measure, upholding such requirements as having companies investigate whether their products include the minerals and file public reports on their investigations beginning in June. The companies just wouldn’t have to list specific products that might contain the minerals."
Wolframite - source of tungsten, used in many electrical applications
Coltan - columbite-tantalite, a valuable black metallic ore combining niobite and tantalite from which the elements niobium and tantalum are refined; used in cell phones and computer chips
Cassiterite - a hard heavy dark mineral composed of tin oxide (SnO2) that is the chief source of tin
Image and video courtesy of Enough Project