The other day, I was searching for my mp3 player. I hadn’t used it in a while, but I was going for a long run and some tunes were just what I needed. First stop? My “junk drawer”. (You know, that desk or dresser drawer home to electronic gadgets, miscellaneous cords, replacement batteries, and the like?) Sure enough, I found it there, lying alongside my e-reader and an old cell phone. I clipped my mp3 player to my shirt, laced up my shoes, and ran out the door without a second thought.
Without a second thought that the contents of my desk drawer are likely connected to a vicious conflict – referred to as the world’s deadliest war – in central Africa.
If years spent studying environmental issues have taught me just one thing, it’s that the world is more connected than we think. Every day (whether consciously or not) we make decisions, and carry out actions that have far reaching consequences. We drive cars and hop on airplanes that contribute to an overabundance of greenhouse gases in the air, warming the planet. We use products packaged in, or laden with, plastics that end up harming our oceans and sea-life. We buy t-shirts produced by child labourers in far-away sweatshops. We accumulate shiny gadgets galore that fuel conflict halfway across the world. Some of these connections are more obvious than others.
In this case, the connection between my mp3 player and an African conflict zone is not readily apparent. Rather, it lurks hidden in the device’s mineral content. Herein lies the problem: the personal electronics that many of us take for granted – cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, etc. – contain minerals such as coltan (Columbite-tantalite), gold, tin, and tungsten that are often mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Known as conflict minerals, these resources play a large part in fueling an ongoing, and incredibly violent, civil war (in a process similar to that which occurs with the more commonly known “blood diamonds”). Despite rarely appearing in mainstream media, the conflict has claimed over 5 million lives and devastated many more.
The high market demand for these minerals – used in everything from personal electronics and household appliances, to lightbulbs and jewelry – makes them extremely valuable. In the DRC, numerous armed groups fight for access and control of these resources in an effort to fund their political and military actions, earning hundreds of millions of dollars annually through mineral trade. These minerals are first smuggled from the DRC to neighbouring countries, and then shipped to smelters across the globe, from which point they can make their way into Canadian production lines. The mines themselves are often situated in areas home to the worst of the violence, and the conflict has lead to incredible human suffering (including mass rape, murder, and violence against children), while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the surrounding natural environment and its non-human inhabitants. This is the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Faced with such a complex situation, how can we begin to create change? After all, it’s impractical, and unrealistic, to suggest that we all simply forgo our cell phones and laptops. Instead, one positive step that we can take is to purchase products we know are free from the conflict. However, unlike fair-trade coffee or sustainable wood products, there is no “conflict-mineral free” certification with which we can guide our decision-making. This lack of information is currently a major barrier to positive social and environmental change, preventing us from making informed choices. Luckily, the Conflict Minerals Act (bill C-486), supported by JGI Canada, is working to increase transparency and accountability surrounding the issue, and end the trade of conflict minerals. The act would require Canadian companies using minerals mined in the DRC to disclose whether armed groups may have profited from mineral mining or processing. This would allow Canadians to be more confident in our choices, and to use our consumer power to reduce the demand for conflict minerals and the associated violence.
Please consider signing JGI Canada’s petition to support the Conflict Minerals Act, and help Canada take a step towards positive change.