The Gustavian Weekly

Blood cell phones

By Tasha Carlson Staff Columnist | October 31, 2008 | Opinion

Do you own a laptop computer? Mobile phone? Sony Playstation? Instead of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why is the sky blue?” perhaps you should ask, “How many people died in order to manufacture my cell phone?”

The phrase “blood diamond” is not a new concept. Americans hear about the horrible mining industry through the television, other news sources and even through movies. Some consumers have come to possess negative opinions and thoughts regarding the popular engagement stone. Although some may think twice before purchasing a blood diamond, we do not stop to think about the materials of which our cell phones are comprised.

Our cell phones and almost all other electronic equipment contain an essential element called tantalum. Our most popular and favorite electronic gadgets contain tantalum capacitors. Author Robin Browne of the website Alternatives explains in a July 2008 article how tantalum is comprised of two minerals: columbite and tantalite. The combination of these two elements is  known as coltan. An astonishing 80 percent of our world’s coltan is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The extraction and mining of this element has fueled  vicious civil wars in the Congo since 1996. All parties involved in the mining and sale of coltan are also part of this civil war.

Cellular-News asserts that “Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo by groups of men digging basins in streams by scraping off the surface mud. … A team can ‘mine’ one kilo of coltan per day.”

Where does this coltan go after it is extracted? In 2006, Global Witness followed the process of mining this deadly rock. It reported that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is as vast as Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado combined. Within this huge area there are only 300 miles of paved roads. One must travel a 40-mile footpath in order to reach one of the many mines. Every day, porters carry 50 kilogram backpacks of this valuable and weighty rock across this treacherous path only to be met at the end of the trail at gunpoint by government soldiers who refuse to offer reimbursement for their deadly trip. A lucky few might make up to five dollars a day for this arduous work.

The global demand for coltan increased when cell-phone and other electronic manufacturers discovered that this element could be used to make the products more compact. Browne also explains how tantalum capacitors are essential to the miniaturization of our cell phones and various other gadgets.

The Global Witness program reminds Americans that more than two billion people on our planet own cell phones. Can you imagine that all of those little phones laid end-to-end would reach almost halfway to the moon? We can’t even calculate how many phones are already buried in landfills or forgotten about in our homes.

The main area where coltan is mined also contains the Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla, according to Cellular-News. The ground has been increasingly cleared to make way for the coltan mining industry. Not only are gorillas experiencing food loss, but also habitat loss. The miners illegally kill these beautiful creatures in order to feed the armies and miners. Tragically, the number of gorillas in the DRC has declined by 90 percent in the past five years due to our world’s demand for tantalum.

This problem is extremely far away from home, which may make your role in this fight confusing. When your cell phone dies or you accidentally break it and need a new one immediately, recycle your old one! Recycling cell phones not only protects our landfills from the hazardous chemicals, but can also reduce our role in this horrible mining war in the Congo. Not only are porters being dreadfully mistreated, but gorillas are dying at an increasing rate due to our world’s never-ending need for tantalum. Today, there are cell phone companies that refuse to use tantalum from Africa because of this horrible situation. You can call your phone company and ask if a) your cell phone can be recycled, and b) if your phone contains tantalum, where was it mined? If we recycle our cell phones and reuse the element, our world’s demand will decrease, hopefully resulting in an Africa without wars over this deadly rock.


Comments are the sole opinion of the visitor who submitted the comment and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author of the article, its editors, or The Gustavian Weekly or Gustavus Adolphus College as a whole.

  1. James says:

    Great article. I am a heavy gadget user, changing them on almost monthly basis. I never heard of this this kind of exploitation and never understood the reasons behind the troubles in Congo.
    It makes me think.


  2. Paddy Walsh says:

    Someone should now think of alternative ways of getting rid of cell phones and laptops. I appears we all have a vicarious liability for the deaths of all those people in the Congo. But those behind the esoteric agendas must be brought to account for this. It is diabolic.

  3. Jonathan Hubbard says:

    As a American who works in the DRC I understand the politics involed in this, I also work in the export of tantalum and the prossing it up its world value. What was happing ten years ago is still happing on a small scale like 1% of exported tantalum may have been mined this way, but due to the DRC’s regs it dosent get through the border to Rwenda. This was going on in the 90’s if you want to help go work for TinCo in DRC and see for your self.

  4. I work for a online cellphone battery supplier and this is news to me. I will be letting the powers that be know about this and have them begin asking the question. We dont carry many cell phones but do carry accessories that will need to be looked into. Thank you publishing this.

  5. nice article. never heard before. it’s like open my ‘eyes’, seems like oil problem in middle east.. all about politics & money *sigh*

  6. NC10 says:

    I have to totally agree. It seems that we are very much gadget centric these days and we live and die by the gadgets we own. These are things that we can live without and considering the human cost involved it’s all the more reason to advoid using them at all costs.

  7. I think you could make the same case for every product that is manufactured in third world countries where the workers work long hours, for little money, and hazardous conditions.

  8. Very great and deeply detailed article.

    I’ve never got a hold of this situation which seems to be a definite truth…

    I love gadgets, technology fascinates me… but not as much as humanity and the values that have to stand for.

    As much as I can, I will do my best to spread the word out!


  9. felly bongi says:

    felly bongi
    as i have congolese backround and i know the politcal situation in last 9 years, congo D.R. has lost 7 millions of lives, exclude rapes on women and children in east of congo

  10. Jimmy S. says:

    Thank you for this article. I never heard before.Do not think the incident of this.

  11. Cindy Ovulex says:

    Wow, I never realized that any part of a cell phone came out of the Congo. Really informative story. Thanks

  12. ogame says:

    What was happing ten years ago is still happing on a small scale like 1% of exported tantalum may have been mined this way, but due to the DRC’s regs it dosent get through the border to Rwenda

  13. Barry Nelson says:

    I always recycle my old phones and i have gone through a dozen in my time. But i like this article it sheds light on the ever growing problem for mining elements.

  14. Mojo Hanzo says:

    I like the idea of recycling cell phones, it will be more efficient and eco friendly

  15. Rumah Dijual says:

    I wish phone cell company would read your article, so they would concern about it too *sigh*

  16. Antonio C. says:

    This was an extremely useful read! Seems like no one wants to talk about this problem… Reminds me of the controversial theory that the research program in the U.S. in the late 1970’s on electric cars was abandoned due to oil interests. I think people should be more aware of the “blood diamond” you describe.

  17. Fabricio Ferraz says:

    Very nice article,
    keeping post 🙂


    Big 🙂