Ever thought of where the metals that make up your mobile phone come from? After all a modern mobile phone is a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment. I heard somewhere it has more computing power than was available to the Apollo astronauts when they landed Eagle on the moon. I am not sure if that is correct but I wouldn’t mind betting it is pretty close to the truth. The fact is the sophisticated touch screens, long life batteries (considering the size) and huge range of capabilities in a modern phone requires some very clever electronics and hence the properties of some comparatively rare metals such as niobium, tantalum and others.
Fortunately the world has a number of supply options on such metals, not as many as we would like but there are supplies in reliable OECD countries like Canada, Australia, Brazil and so on. Unfortunately a small percentage (and hence hard to trace) comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where nominal control of the mines swings between militias and the army. The workers suffer theft, rape and even murder by whichever military group is in control. The major mining companies have long since pulled out of the DRC eastern provinces but have kept their profits flowing by taking the illegally mined ore and processing it overseas. For the miners in the remote eastern provinces, there is no other form of employment and so outright banning of mining activity is a non starter. The government has finally come to the realization that they need the international mining companies to manage the extraction responsibly and provide fair conditions of employment but the mining companies are not going to come back until law and order can be guaranteed, difficult when the army behave much like the rebel militia and local war lords. A recent report by the BBC explores the idea of certifying the origin of the material in the same way that diamonds are certified. A first step in this direction is an ITRU initiative to increase supply chain transparency but observers outside the mining companies believe that at present this is not sufficiently robust to be an effective certification process. The version of the BBC report that was aired live stated that the Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC) was one of the largest processors of DRC coltan ores smuggled out through neighboring countries and shipped to an AMC subsidiary in Thailand. This story has been covered elsewhere but interestingly the BBC dropped that reference when it came to the online report linked to above. A Global Witness report however mentions some 200 companies that have handled conflict minerals from the DRC, including other European companies, Chinese, Indian, Russian and so the list goes on. This will only be stopped by mining companies being shamed into examining and publishing details about their supply sources in a transparent manner, and from that will probably develop a two tier market for certified largely western producers and non certified largely third world producers. For the exploited workers in the DRC, the establishment of lasting law and order and return of the mining companies can’t come soon enough.