HAEMMERLE: Blood cell phones

Matt Haemmerle

For much of the world, cell phones are a necessity and a godsend. For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cell phones are responsible for killing 5.4 million people since 1998.

Coltan, the new “blood diamond,” is a metallic ore containing tantalum, which is essential to produce today’s low-cost cell phones and a vast array of other electronic devices such as laptop computers, DVD players and Playstations. Four-fifths of the world’s tantalum is found in Africa – of this, 80 percent is in the Congo. Congo is now a victim of its natural resource after government kleptocracy, corporate corruption, violence and exploitation.

The global market demand for coltan and its role in financing the current carnage began after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hutu soldiers and a million refugees fled into the mountainous jungles of Congo and in 1996, Rwanda invaded Congo with the pretense that the Hutus were a security threat. Then, Rwanda and Uganda sent troops into the Congo to overthrow its dictator. Finally, the governments of Rwanda and Uganda backed rebel movements within Congo. Today, through each government’s respective proxy militias, Rwanda and Uganda have destabilized the eastern Kivu province of Congo, allowing both nations to pillage Congo’s vast natural resources and mineral wealth.

As Congo has been stripped of coltan, Rwanda and Uganda have financed Congolese proxy militias and enriched themselves.

A simple glance at export statistics reveals the extent of the looting. Rwanda’s coltan production doubled between 1996 and 1997, earning Rwanda and its rebel allies $20 million a month. The Rwandan government claimed production of 1,440 metric tons of its coltan exports that year. However, official statistics only account for 83 metric tons a year. In 1999, Uganda produced no coltan but exported 69.5 tons. Clearly, the numbers don’t add up.

While stolen coltan finances Congo’s war, the United States and other Western nations provide the means for this. The Rwandan government uses its U.S. military aid to finance proxy militias. The Congolese government uses its U.S. funding for its own army. Both sides of the war are funded by the U.S. and Congo is being destabilized and exploited as a result.

Coltan is processed into tantalum by just three companies – Cabot Inc. of the U.S., Germany’s HC Starc and China’s Nigncxia and then sold to companies like Nokia, Compaq, Dell, IBM and Sony for everyday electronics.

It’s impossible to ignore the multinational corruption evident in coltan acquisition. Corporate violations include benefiting from forced labor, supplying arms to rebel forces, smuggling, money laundering, illegal currency transactions and dealing with shady middlemen to secure contracts and concessions.

Unfortunately for Congo, many people are unaware of the atrocious situation. People just don’t take much of an interest unless Leonardo Di Caprio makes a movie about it. Too many people view the Congo as a distant backwater rotting under the shadow of the sun.

Those who do take concern in the Congo write about it or lobby against the multinational companies responsible for exploiting Congo.

Popular resistance by NGOs has had some success; Motorola’s committed to reexamine its business practices and supply chains.

Companies will be compelled to take true action when consumers exert pressure on them to conduct business scrupulously. But for now, business is business as usual.

While corrupt government officials, multinational corporations, military leaders, and consumers benefit, the people of Congo suffer from the curse of coltan that prolongs their civil war. Just a thought to bear in mind the next time the cell phone rings.


Matt Haemmerle is a sophomore political science and economics major from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected].