Smartphone wars: ‘The Phantom Menace’ behind acquiring rare minerals


Illustration: Alex Bailey

Whenever we see iPhones and other electronics, we sometimes cannot help but get a sense that the future is getting brighter and that technology will lead the way to a better future. The advent of computers and the internet has made our lives quicker. It’s also easier to stay in touch with people back home or friends far away. Technology has made our lives more interconnected and more entertaining in some ways.

Yet, what one sees is the end product of the electronics supply chain. Before any of the products are sold to us by minimum-wage-earning store clerks: and before the products are produced in factories: raw materials and rare earth metals are gathered from war-torn areas in Africa. Tin, gold, coltan, tungsten and other metals allow electronic companies to create their electronics. Tungsten helps our phones vibrate, tantalum allows our electronics to store electric charge without a battery. As an example of our dependence on these rare earth metals, Newsweek reported that 20 percent of the world’s tantalum comes from Congo.

The U.N. estimates that each year hundreds of millions of dollars of metals from these war-torn areas are purchased and the funds go to Congolese renegades and Hutu fighters associated with the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, as well as many other unsavory characters. Their violent crimes include genocide, mutilation and sometimes even forced cannibalism.

The main issue is that international policy has to enforce fair trade and better working rights. Tech brands currently have difficulty deducing whether they use conflict minerals in their electronics. Between Apple and the initial supplier of raw materials, there can be as many as five steps of separation. The metal ore is first mined by rebel groups in Africa, then sold to multinational smelters and bought and sold among different distributors before it finally makes it way to electronics companies.

That is one of the problems with our global economy, though it allows us to work together more effectively: Our distance from others makes us callous towards how they feel.

Though it does not seem like technology will leave us anytime soon, I think that new policies will help enforce order in the Congo; one hopeful example is the Kimberley Method, which helps purchasers identify which diamonds were mined without hurting human rights. A similar system is needed to identify where we get rare earth metals. Until then, since we cannot stem the flow of technology, there will always be some regret at the human cost of technology.