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Cell Phone Boycott Protests War in Congo

Written By mediavigil on Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 11:32 AM

Note:What Is Coltan? It is Columbite-tantalite — coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, pagers and many other electronics. The recent technology boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia and Sony struggled to meet demand.

Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping away dirt from the surface in order to get to the coltan underground. The workers then slosh water and mud around in large washtubs, allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight. A good worker can produce one kilogram of coltan a day.

Coltan mining is very well paid in Congo terms. The average Congolese worker makes $10 a month, while a coltan miner can make anywhere from $10 to $50 a week.

A U.N. Security Council report recently outlined the alleged exploitation of natural resources, including coltan, from Congo by other countries involved in the current war. There are reports that forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are involved in smuggling coltan from Congo, using the revenues generated from the high price of coltan to sustain their efforts in the war. By one estimate, the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of coltan, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda. All countries involved in the war deny exploiting Congo's natural resources.

Environmental Consequences

In order to mine for coltan, rebels have overrun Congo's national parks, clearing out large chunks of the area's lush forests. In addition, the poverty and starvation caused by the war have driven some miners and rebels to hunt the parks' endangered elephants and gorillas for food. In Kahuzi Biega National Park, for example, the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130.

Tracing the Source

The path that coltan takes to get from Central Africa to the world market is a highly convoluted one, with legitimate mining operations often being confused with illegal rebel operations, and vice versa, making it difficult to trace the origin. To be safe, in recent months many electronics companies have publicly rejected the use of coltan from anywhere in Central Africa, instead relying on their main suppliers in Australia. American-based Kemet, the world's largest maker of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Congo or bordering countries. But it may be a case of too little, too late. Much of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell phones and electronics all over the world.

Cell Phone Boycott Protests War in Congo

WASHINGTON: A student and activist coalition is urging cell phone users to "Cell Out" this afternoon in solidarity with the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where millions have died as a result of conflict over coltan, a rare mineral used in cell phones and other electronics.

Friends of the Congo is working with university students at dozens of colleges and universities in the United States and around the world to carry out a cell phone boycott between noon and 6:00 PM Wednesday.

The boycott is part of "Break the Silence Week," an effort to raise awareness among cell phone users and others about the ongoing civil war in the DRC and the role of minerals such as coltan in stoking the conflict.

The organizers particularly want to reach the media, which has provided little coverage of a chronic conflict in which nearly 6 million people have died since 1997, and some 45,000 people die each month.

The United Nations characterized the conflict in the Congo as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Congolese journalism student Kambale Masavuli, a student at North Carolina A&T University and one of the organizers of this week's events, said about the large numbers of deaths: "The equivalent of a Darfur happens in the Congo every five and a half months, yet mainstream media does not cover the Congo properly."

Most of the world's coltan (short for columbite tantalite) is found in the DRC -- about 80 percent. Armed militias from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, along with local militias from the DRC, are exploiting most of the reserves and selling the product to multinational corporations that produce cell phones and other electronic devices.

Companies benefiting from the coltan wars are based in Belgium, China, and Germany, along with several in the United States. Once processed, coltan is used by major firms such as Nokia, Compaq, and IBM in products as diverse as pacemakers, jet engines, digital cameras, and laptops, as well as cell phones.

The presence of these armed militias has been deadly for local populations in eastern DRC, where frequent attacks by militias have forced countless numbers to flee their homes and villages. According to UNICEF, many women and girls have been raped, and the lives of large numbers of young children are put at risk.

In mid-September a spike in the fighting over control of coltan mines produced "a brutal impact on the children and women of the Kivus," said UNICEF's Julien Harneis, referring to an area in the eastern part of the country that has long been considered the epicenter of the fighting. "Many children are split up from their families as they flee; in displacement they are even more vulnerable to malaria, measles, cholera, and malnutrition."

In addition to the "Cell Out" boycott, the organizers of Break the Silence Week are also encouraging university students to show a film or video on the Congo, ask a professor to teach a special class, or ask university administrators to issue a public statement deploring the situation in the Congo and the lack of media coverage.

Alison Raphael, OneWorld US
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