Is Your Mobile Device or Laptop Funding Conflict Mineral Wars?

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Many of our electronic devices are made up of minerals like tantalum, used to make the capacitors in most cell phones, and tin, which makes up the inside lining of some cell phones and is used to solder circuit boards. Unfortunately, many of these materials come from conflict-ridden areas of the Congo, where increasing profits from electronic sales help fund the inhumane treatment of people who live and work in the country. The Enough Project, an advocacy group focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity, estimates that conflict mining is a $185 million business, which is even more shocking when you consider the World Bank says average the average miner makes only $5 a day.

According to Raise Hope for Congo, more than 5.4 million people have died from the continuous wars that ravage the country. The organization urges people to tell companies that they want conflict free products. Congo’s minerals are especially attractive to electronic manufacturers because of unregulated mining practices and cheap labor. Minerals from the African nation cost half or a third as much the same materials from other countries, according to the Washington Post. Though the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Act requires manufacturers to identify and get rid of conflict minerals in their products and similar legislation will be mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2011, Congolese mines are often controlled by armed groups and militias. These groups smuggle the minerals out of the country to smelting companies on other continents, which means the origin of the minerals can often be masked even from the company commissioning the product.  Even though Congo’s president announced a ban on all artisanal mining in eastern Congo last August, the ruling has not been enforced by the country’s national military and has even negatively affected the citizens who work in the mines as a main source of income.

A recent report from Enough Project ranked the top 21 electronics manufacturers, showing their progress in creating products with conflict-free minerals and the steps they’ve taken to ensure that. Leading the pack was HP with an over 30 percent improvement. The company has endorsed anti-conflict mineral legislation and advocates for strong US regulations for all manufacturers. Apple, who uses tantalum not only in their smartphones but in iPods as well, were given a yellow score, which means there is much room for improvement. (Though several of their top executives have spoken out against conflict mineral mining in the Congo, they did not weigh in on key US conflict mineral legislation.) Toshiba received the worst score of the bunch; they have barely made any changes at all according to the study.  Enough Project knows it may be hard for the average consumer to tell whether or not they are helping fund a war over natural resources just by looking at a product. Still, the group hopes that especially this holiday season when people are out shopping for the latest gadgets that by being little more knowledgeable about which companies are taking a stand against genocide and human rights abuses, shoppers can judge for themselves whether or not to support these crimes against humanity.

More on TIME.com:

Smash-and-Grab Apple Store Thefts Becoming Frequent

Forget Drugs. iPads, iPods Now Joining The Smuggling Trade

Do Phone Tech Specs Matter?


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