WA Members Talk

The Real Cost of Cell Phones

Beverly Baker, WA Trustee enlightens us.

For most of us, the words “child labor” understandably sends shivers through our spine. It conjures up visions of back-alleyed factories, people with small children who should be on a playground, but are pressed to work in squalid, sweltering, dark and dangerous places to make a living. Each of us readily agrees that these circumstances and conditions are unacceptable, but what if changing the conditions and circumstances would mean changing our lives and removing our conveniences or worse yet, compromising our very existence?

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If you could look inside your cell phone, iPad or Android tablet or your favorite camera, you would find tantalum – a heat resistant powder that is a powerful conductor of electricity and helps to keep your device charged. Tantalum is also found in lifesaving devices like pacemakers and prosthetics, and in devices necessary for our national security like missiles.

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Tantalum is made from a tar-like mineral ore called Coltan. Sixty four percent of the world’s supply of Coltan was mined in the Democratic Republic of The Congo (formerly known as Zaire) and sold for approximately $500 per pound. As the demand for luxury electronics and wartime weapons grew, companies like Apple and Microsoft in the United States, Europe and China became dependent on Coltan. Mining Coltan was controlled by armies and rebel groups who generated over $20 million each month in profits. Harvesting Coltan was unnecessarily brutal and ended in death for many laborers and children. The people in the region became virtual slaves, subject to vicious rape, beating, and unbelievable exploitation.

Concerned? Outraged? Feeling like something should be done about this?

It would take over a decade for action to be taken to stop the killing, the burning of entire towns and the exploitation in this region. In 2010, Congress acted to lessen the use of conflict minerals that fueled the violence in the Congo and in August 2012, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) adopted a rule mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to require all companies that are monitored by the SEC to report and publicly disclose whether metals in their products have supported the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country. The primary purpose was to tag and trace the possible import of Coltan from the Congo.

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Last year, three powerful lobby interests, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable, sued the SEC to prevent the enforcement of this rule. Surprisingly, the U.S. Court of Appeals, while upholding parts of the rule, held that another part violated a companies’ First Amendment right to free speech.

The good news is that despite Congress’ long silence and the ridiculous 2013 court decision, exportation of Coltan in the Congo is now 90% less than it was in 2010.

As for us, our conveniences and life as we know it, remains intact.

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As for the Congolese, what remains is poverty and devastation:

  • Rebel groups continue to plague parts of the county.
  • Over five million people (many of them children) have been killed.
  • Thousands of women and small children continue to be raped and ultimately scorned by society.
  • Seven million people are displaced and is yet to return due to the ongoing violence. They have moved deep into the forest for protection.
  • Children are not educated.
  • Migration to the forest has had a severe impact on the wildlife and several animal groups such as the elephant and buffalo in the area are in danger of extinction.
  • Deforestation due to the movement of the population has affected the ecology in the region.
  • Mining has caused the land to be eroded. This has affected the lakes and rivers and caused a sharp increase in the number of cholera deaths.

That was the ultimate cost of your cell phone.

Posted by Beverly Baker.