Monday, March 15, 2010

New bill to track metals in electronics

The Boston Globe has a story today by Emily Sweeney focusing on the misery in Congolese mines, which are the source for so many minerals used in consumer electronics. Many of the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where minerals such as tantalum lie close to the surface of the earth, are controlled by rogue military groups illegally mining to buy military weapons. They kidnap people to force them to work either as miners or as sex slaves, or they force men and boys into labor through debt pressure. The bad news for us as consumers is that these minerals from the Congo are two or three times cheaper than those mined in Australia or Canada or elsewhere. And that means that if you have a cell phone or laptop or other electronic device, that the transistors and capacitors in your device most likely have minerals mined in the Congo.

The destruction may be happening more than 6,500 miles away, but it’s closer to home than many people realize, according to the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Ultimately, our cellphones, laptops, and other consumer electronics have been feeding into this war,’’ said David Sullivan, a researcher with the group.

The road from rural mines to retail store shelves where such electronic devices are sold is long and twisted, and until recently most US consumers knew nothing about it.

That is slowly changing.

Several efforts are underway to shed more light on the supply chain that leads to the cellphone in your pocket and the laptop on your desk.

US Representatives Barney Frank of Newton, James P. McGovern of Worcester, and Michael E. Capuano of Somerville support the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which would require companies to certify whether their goods contain minerals that originate from conflict areas of Congo. The measure focuses on gold, cassiterite, wolframite, and columbite-tantalite (also known as coltan), minerals common in consumer electronics products.

The bill was introduced in November by US Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state who hopes it will raise awareness. “I’m always worried about what’s going on there,’’ said McDermott. “Central Africa is a black hole in the earth for most people.’’

McDermott’s legislation highlights problems that have long plagued Congo, a country that holds vast amounts of mineral wealth, but remains one of the poorest nations in the world. In the eastern part of the country, illegal Congolese and foreign militia groups have run rampant for years. They have kidnapped and forced civilians to work as laborers, soldiers, and sex slaves. Men and boys are also exploited through debt bondage, and coerced into working in mines for extremely low wages, according to the State Department. Such armed groups “are simply stealing ore and selling it to the international market,’’ said McDermott, and “everyone who has a cellphone has a piece of the action.’’

Similar legislation was introduced last April by US Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Democratic Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Their measure would require companies to disclose their use of Congolese minerals to the Securities and Exchange Commission every year. So far three senators from New England — Patrick J. Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — have signed on as cosponsors.

Congress also recently passed a defense budget that calls for the State Department to create a map of mineral-rich areas that are under the control of armed groups in Congo.

In April, manufacturers and processors of tantalum — a high-performance metal used in many electronic devices — will convene in Boston to brainstorm on ways they can specify the source of tantalum responsibly. The gathering is being sponsored by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, an association of 40 global companies that includes Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Intel Corp., EMC Corp., and Best Buy.

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and another industry group, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, are working to develop a way to certify smelters who obtain tantalum through “socially and environmentally responsible mines’’ in Congo and surrounding countries.

The meeting will be hosted by Cabot Corp., a Boston company that is one of the world’s leading producers of tantalum products.

Andrew O’Donovan, general manager of Cabot’s supermetals division, said the industry coalition is trying to eliminate conflict minerals from the supply chain without freezing out legitimate suppliers in the region.

There are some legitimate mining operations in Congo that are “just trying to make a living like the rest of us,’’ said O’Donovan. But “today there is no system in place to determine the good from the bad,’’ he said.
Here is a report from Oxfam on the issue of forced labor, kidnapping and rape in the Congo, dated July 14, 2009. Oxfam's analysis was that the U.N. backed military offensive caused a surge in this action against civilians. They carried out a survey of 569 villagers as they provided aid. The brief report contains a link to an in-depth report, "Waking the Devil,the impact of forced disarmament on civilians in the Kivus." While not specifically mentioning forcing men to work in the mines, this cycle of violence against civilians must be connected to the working of the mines to acquire weapons. Global Issues, a site by Anup Shah, an individual in the U.S. maintains a page with a nice summary of the painful recent history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photo of Congolese miners is from the Globe, which credits Finbarr O’Reilly /Reuters.

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