WASHINGTON — In an effort to shine a light on the darkness at the heart of the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, the Enough Project traveled to eastern Congo to better understand how the 3Ts (Tin, Tantalum, and Tungsten) and gold make their way from Congo’s killing fields to our cell phones, laptops, MP3 players and video game systems.
What we found is that the conflict minerals supply chain is far less intimidating than the electronics industry would have consumers believe. In fact, the journey from mine to cell phone can be broken down into six major steps that make the supply chain relatively easy to understand.
Step 1) The journey of a conflict mineral begins at one of eastern Congo’s many mines. There are 13 major mines — 12 of which are currently controlled by armed groups — and about 200 total mines in the region. The average wage for a miner (often child laborers between the ages of 10 and 16) is between $1 and $5 a day.
Step 2) From the mines, the minerals are transported to trading towns and then on to the two major cities in the region, Bukavu and Goma. In the gold trade, Butembo and Uvira are also key trading hubs.
Step 3) Export companies then buy minerals from the trading houses and transporters, process the minerals using machinery, and then sell them to foreign buyers. These companies, known locally as comptoirs, are required to register with the government, and there are currently 17 exporters based in Bukavu and 24 based in Goma.
Step 4) From the exporter the minerals are sent mainly by road, boat, or plane to the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Some minerals are legally exported, with taxes paid to the Congolese government, while others are smuggled across Congo’s porous borders. Either way, conflict minerals form a major portion of the trade.
Step 5) In order for the minerals to be sold on the world market, they have to be refined into metals by metal processing companies. These companies, based mainly in East Asia, take the Congolese minerals and smelt or chemically process them together with metals from other countries in large furnaces.
Step 6) Finally, the refiners sell Congo’s minerals onto the electronics companies, the single largest consumer of the minerals from eastern Congo. These companies, which include Intel, Apple, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, Nintendo, etc., then make the products that we all know and buy — cell phones, portable music players, video games and laptop computers.
Since companies do not currently have a system to trace, audit and certify where their materials come from, all cell phones and laptops may contain conflict minerals from Congo. But now that we have a clearer picture of this deadly supply chain, we as consumers have the power to build a movement in which buyers of cell phones, laptops and iPods begin to demand conflict-free electronics. See our full report to learn what you can do to help now.
John Prendergast is co-founder of Enough, the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity at the Center for American Progress.
Editor's note: This story was updated to remove a reference to a U.S. company named in a U.N. report on conflict minerals. Click here for more details on this correction.