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Conflict-Free iPhones: Coming Soon to a Store Near You?

Last week, this space introduced the role of DRC’s mineral resources in fueling the ongoing violence in the east – particularly how the illegal exploitation of minerals by armed groups on all sides provides both a means and an incentive for these groups to maintain the current state of insecurity. Experts, including organizations like Global Witness, warn that the ailing peace process is unlikely to survive unless the issue of resource exploitation is addressed in a serious way.

According to Global Witness director Patrick Alley, the economic dimension of the conflict has been avoided thus far by international mediators “on the basis that it is too sensitive or could derail peace talks.” But as fighting continues this week between the Congolese army, FARDC, and General Laurent Nkunda’s forces – in clear violation of the January 2008 ceasefire – it may be time to revisit the peace process.

Looking beyond the negotiating table, corporations purchasing illegal minerals from DRC, undoubtedly play a role in fueling the current conflict, and arguably have both a responsibility and a potential ability to help solve it. Alley suggests that companies risk complicity unless they refuse to buy minerals that originate from mines controlled illegally by armed groups in eastern DRC.

This is, however, easier said than done. Take coltan for example. Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is a metallic ore from which niobium and tantalum are extracted. Tantalum in primarily used in the production of capacitors for portable electronic devices: everything from cell phones and laptops to hearing aids. Coltan is one of the minerals most commonly extracted and sold by armed groups in eastern Congo.

While the electronics industry may ask its manufacturers not to source illegal coltan from DRC, it is virtually impossible at this point to ensure compliance, as there is no mechanism to trace or “fingerprint” coltan. The ore is generally sold to buyers in DRC, or smuggled into one of the neighboring countries. From there it can be sold to any number of distributors, mixing in with the global supply, before it finally ends up in your everyday consumer electronics.

Tracing processes do exist for other minerals, most notably the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which allows countries and companies to certify shipments of rough diamonds as “conflict-free”. And, while its implementation may be imperfect, Kimberley provides a standard by which companies and governments can be held accountable. The lack of a similar tracing mechanism for Congolese coltan allows companies to pass the burden of accountability down the supply chain until it reaches actors that are virtually impervious to public pressure (i.e. shareholder pressure or consumer boycotts).

Some progress is being made on this front. In March 2008, the Congolese government announced a pilot initiative to create a certification mechanism for coltan mined within DRC’s borders. The initiative is to be financed by the German government, which sent a team of researchers to the area in April. The researchers plan to map the country’s coltan producing areas and create a unique chemical “footprint” of the ore there, which ultimately will allow corporations and governments to track coltan that is illegally exported from DRC. In an optimistic statement, DRC Mines Minister Victor Kasongo predicted that, by 2009, we will begin to see “many machines, many iPods, that are certified [as conflict-free].”

Electronics companies have largely expressed support for this effort, presumably to deflect criticism from shareholders and customers about their connection to the conflict in the east. However, consider that while the Kimberley Process began with governments of diamond-producing states in southern Africa, there were no “conflict-free” diamonds until the diamond industry became an active participant in the process.

In the same way, it is far from certain that we will see “conflict-free” iPhones any time soon without the active involvement of the electronics industry in establishing certification process for coltan.

As we witness the current peace process in eastern Congo breaking down, perhaps it is time to think more broadly about the burden of responsibility and more creatively about the potential to act.

–Nina McMurry, Congo Education Coordinator

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