If you’re a Leonardo DiCaprio fan, you’ve probably heard the term blood diamond. It’s the title of his 2006 filmÂ set in Sierra Leone against the backdrop of armed conflict funded by diamond sales. The film helped raise awareness about this terrible connection and the steps being taken to break it.
Minerals associated with violence go beyond diamonds. Other lesser-known but vitally important materials play similar rolesÂ in conflictsÂ elsewhere. And these materialsÂ end up inside your mobile phone.
Our museum’s display at this year’s Denver Gem & Mineral ShowÂ (Sept. 16-18, 2016), addresses the issue of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These minerals includeÂ gold, tantalum, tungsten, and tin ores.
What is a conflict mineral?
A conflict mineral is a resource that directly or indirectly supports paramilitary violence and warfare. Mining in the DRC is carried out by small, local operators using hand tools and manual labor. ItÂ is a critical source of income for poor families who would otherwise rely only on subsistence farming to survive. Because these operations are so small and decentralized, however, the ore they produce must go through a long series of traders and middlemen before it can reach the market.
Paramilitary groups exploit this part of the supply chain because the material and money are so difficult to trace. UsingÂ violence, murder, rape, and extortion, they forceÂ taxes on the movement of ore minerals and use the profits toÂ buy weapons.
How do these minerals affect me?
MaterialsÂ derived fromÂ conflict minerals are critical toÂ products you use every day. Just look at that ubiquitous symbol of high-tech gadgetry: your mobile phone.
Inside every smartphone, you’ll find:
- Gold, which makesÂ fast electrical conductors that won’t corrode over time
- Tungsten, used in the vibrating motor that makes your phone buzz
- Tantalum, needed to help tiny capacitors hold an electric charge
- Tin, the soldering material connecting components together
These four materials are known collectively as the “3TG.” They have a wide variety of other uses, from hardening drill bits (tungsten) to forming surgical implants and rocket nozzles (tantalum) to shaping window glass (tin).
How are corporations responding?
With such widespread uses of 3TG materials, it can seem impossible for the average person to have an impact on this issue. Fortunately, international governments, corporations, and non-governmental organizations areÂ taking steps to cut off suppliers linked with conflict.
Annually, reports from electronics corporations and other organizations show positive trends: they are making headway in creating transparent supply chains and identifying conflict-free source materials. However, more must still be done, especially to combat smugglersÂ who mix uncertified ore materials with ores certified to be conflict-free.
What can I do to help?
You can help work towards a conflict-free future by being an informed consumer. If you’re shopping for a new phone, look up the manufacturer’s Conflict Minerals Report as well as its device’s processing speed. If you are dedicated to a particular smartphone brand, contact the manufacturer in writing or through social media to express your support forÂ conflict-free sourcing.
And when you’re done with your old device, always remember to recycle. Electronics recycling not only reuses 3TG materials, but also benefits public health and the environment.