The potential cost of an iPod


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A devastating and tragic humanitarian crisis is plaguing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And a key driver of the conflict hits uncomfortably close to home.

For 13 years, the people of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have been ensnared in a tangled web of violence by armed groups that generate an estimated $180 million each year by controlling the trade in four minerals — tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. These minerals are key components in all of our electronics products, from cell phones to laptops and printers.

Every time you pick up your Razor cell phone, or pound out that five-page paper on your MacBook, or step outside to take a jog using your iPod, you could be implicitly supporting the deadliest conflict since World War II. Unbeknown to most, the cameras that were used to snap those pictures of the president on Thursday could contain components originally from mines in the eastern Congo that are controlled by violent militia groups.

The death tolls are staggering: It’s estimated that more than 5 million have been killed in conflict-related violence. Uprooted from their homes, thousands have fled and become refugees. Rape is used as a weapon and form of social control on local populations.

Minerals mined in the Congo end up in the electronic products in the United States because of an insufficient system of auditing and verification. The minerals are smuggled out of the country to neighboring countries and, eventually, to Asian countries. There they are refined and combined with other minerals from around the world, which makes them difficult — but not entirely impossible — to trace. Finally the minerals are processed into components which end up in the electronic products found in stores in Chicago, Columbus, or Iowa City.

Opaque as the process where “conflict minerals” reach the global market may be, our voracious American consumer appetite is fueling the conflict. Armed groups use the profits to buy more weapons and maintain control of the mineral-producing mines.

But the solution does not lie in cutting off purchases of cell phones or minerals from all of the Congo. We need a better international system of identifying the original source of minerals and stiffer penalties for those who violate the law. We also need more enlightened consumers.

The conflict in the Congo is an example of the dark underbelly of globalization. Goods and services are traded all across the world. Ideas and information flow instantaneously. Just about every process of interaction is rapidly intensifying and on a global scale. We have access to more and better stuff — a new iPod this week or a Google Android the next. That stuff is getting cheaper too. If this is globalization, then globalization is very, very good.

But in disparate places all around the world, a very different process is taking place. In the Congo, children work mines for less than $1 a day, controlled by repressive armed groups that use the profits from illegally smuggled minerals to finance war and pillage. There’s an undeniably uncomfortable incongruence here.

The “blood diamonds” provide an interesting parallel. It was only when a large consumer demand for conflict-free precious commodities that governments and institutions mobilized. We may be on the verge of a similar consumer revolt.

But the problem of “conflict minerals” is more interwoven into our everyday lives. And it’s the responsibility of institutions such as the UI to demand that the electronic products that it buys from companies contain no minerals from conflict areas.

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