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.