Blood on Your Mobile?
Dev Nathan, Sandip Sarkar

The question of establishing a value chain in mobile phones that is free of coltan (a mineral used in capacitors, essential for these phones) is not only one of tracing the path of supply of this mineral. Traceability needs to be backed by measures to support artisanal miners through local facilitation centres and finance, and with steps to establish a credible state, one responsible to its citizens, including the miners.

This note is based on the “Scoping Study” for the study of the raw materials segment of mobile telecommunications as part of the research on economic and social upgrading in global production, under the “Capturing the Gains” research project, funded by DFID and coordinated at the Brooks World Poverty Institute of the University of Manchester. Dev Nathan ( and Sandip Sarkar ( are with the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

lood diamonds are well known, but what about blood mobiles? This preliminary look into the global production of mobile phones revealed the critical link between armed factions, poverty and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and mobile phone users worldwide. This is coltan, or columbite tantalite, the raw material for tantalum, a mineral used in capacitors, which are essential to mobile phones, computers and other electronic quipment. Coltan constitutes only about 1% of the value of all raw materials contained in mobile phones. But its importance cannot be underestimated. Coltan’s “capacitance property” allows the storage and virtually instantaneous release of electric charge with a minimal loss of power. It is this quality which makes coltan so critical to the mobile phone industry, indeed, to computers and all electronics. More than 30% of the world’s supply of coltan is mined in the eastern part of the DRC and the Great Lakes region (United States Geological Survey 2010: 173), much of it by tens of thousands of artisanal miners, many of whom are children. In the Congo, the mining and marketing of coltan (as well as gold, tin and other minerals) are controlled by both governmentbacked and private military-commercial complexes, involving traders, financiers and armed soldiers (Raeymaeker 2002). The mobile telecommunications system is a complicated global production network (GPN) by different firms, spanning different countries. This consists of: (1) hardware production (mobile phones and network infrastructure); (2) software production (operating systems and mobile applications); (3) sales and marketing of telecommunications hardware and software; (4) mobile telecom services; (5) end use of phones by consumers; and (6) afteruse (waste-handling). Colton enters into the production chain in the first stage, as an element in hardware production. The boom in the mobile phone industry should bring considerable benefits
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to those involved in coltan mining. But at present, this is not the case. The Committee of Experts formed by the UN Security Council (2008) to enquire into the continuing war in the DRC (dubbed by Prunier (2009) as “Africa’s World War”) made it clear that, rather than bringing benefits to the miners in the DRC, coltan has been fuelling a deadly conflict between the armies of central African governments and private militias in the region. In this conflict, rape of women as an instrument of control is so well established that the eastern region of the Congo, the coltan region, has been labelled the “rape capital of the world” by the UN Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Wallstrom 2010). The Congolese army (FADC) itself has been named by Human Rights Watch (2009) as the number one perpetrator of rape and sexual assaults on women in the eastern Congo.

Actors in the Conflict Coltan Chain
In the Congo, mining of coltan is carried out in some 200 mines. But the vast majority of coltan is mined in small artisanal operations.1 Since coltan is often found near the surface, it is easily mined by farmers turned diggers.2 The miners earn from $1 and $5 per day, which is not even 10% of the local value of the coltan (and other minerals) they mine (Pendergrast and Lezhnev 2009: 2). Of the 13 major mines, 12 are controlled by armed groups, including units of the Congolese army (FADC); FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), a Rwandan-Hutu militia led by organisers of the 1994 Rwandan genocide; and their opponents, National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), linked to the Rwandan regime. Smallscale, artisanal mining is often controlled by small, locally-based armed groups or militias, collectively called the mai mai. The larger armed units and the mai mai both “tax” the mines directly and indirectly extort money or minerals at the checkpoints they control. Miners’ wages, although small, are important to the local economy. A new type of informal economy is developing around coltan (and other minerals). “Coltan fever” has rapidly dollarised many relatively remote rural areas (Jackson 2002: 528). Along with the mining and violence,
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such as Rwanda. Rwanda is a preferred exit point as the export tax from DRC is greater than from Rwanda or Uganda. They are merchant-aggregators who then transport the minerals by truck or even small planes. AVX in the UK. channelled through their own armed units or armed units allied to them. and other countries. the Government of Rwanda has now started a programme to certify the origin of Rwanda’s own mineral production. in Rwanda. Air transportation has played a key role in transporting conflict materials. for dealing in conflict coltan (and other minerals). all parties to the conflict are killing. 2010 23 . with the chain of financial advances going right back to European and other commercial houses and coltan processors (IPIS 2002). Coltan from the smelters is used in the manufacture of capacitors. accounting for 80% of its exports in 2008. Kazakhstan. many secondary activities have developed – prostitution. Indeed. Profits of up to $20 million per month are said to have sustained the Rwandan army (Ma 2009: 2). After the 2008 UN Security Resolution on conflict minerals from the DRC. It remains to be seen to what extent this has any effect on mixing of Congolese with Rwandan coltan. of course. Coltan and other minerals (including tin) are sold by artisanal miners. called negociants in French. it is easy to lie about this. There is little difference. The exporters finance the trading houses. A woman from Gisenyi summed it up. using this finance. The exporters sort the minerals and then sell the coltan to foreign buyers. HP and the major chip manufacturers such as Intel and AMD. to the trading houses or exporters. in conjunction with military personnel and border customs officials. Just three smelter-processors buy 80% of the ore: the US Cabot Corporation. German H C Stark and the Chinese Ningxia Corporation. The trading houses are located in the towns of Goma and Bukavu. However. to merchants. All in all. more or less on the spot. it would be easy to identify the geographic source of the ore by the colour and texture of the container.4 But as of date. NEC in Japan and Samsung in South Korea. provide advances to the miners which places them in a state of bondage. Ironically. Failure of Governance The UN’s conflict minerals policy requires that the source of all materials is revealed and that minerals should not be secured from conflict areas. etc. and. through the military and the Department of Congo Affairs. Coltan is smuggled across the Congolese border into Uganda. Uganda. When coltan ore is brought to the buyer-transporters and trading houses in separate sacks or other vol xlv no 43 containers. other than in scale. Women. Ningxia continues to do so. Rwanda and Burundi. sell to the exporters or comptoirs. Amnesty International concluded that “under the pretext of fighting their opponents. Faced with criticism of its re-export of conflict coltan. four of which are the major refiners in the US. all that the trading houses do is to ask whether the coltan came from a conflict area. The capacitors are integrated into circuit boards by wellknown electronics manufacturers. Other neighbouring countries. There are about 100 such trading houses in each of the two towns. this is not done. chip. and Burundi also have small deposits of coltan. But the absence of enforcement makes it easy for minerals from conflict zones to be moved around the blacklists and into the supply chain at this stage. “Those who are not killed by the soldiers of the former army are killed by those of the new army. most are given advances by the international traders from Belgium. Data (International Trade Center 2010) show that China is now the primary consumer of DRC’s coltan. the state. looting. Some of these armed units are financed by traders. have to rely on the refiners to trace the supply chain of their components. but most of them are not. The circuit boards and computer chips then end up in the mobile phones manufactured by Nokia. some working from the age of eight. Although neighbouring countries. Many of the miners are child labourers. where no questions are asked about the source of the mineral. Motorola. is reported to be directly involved in the coltan trade. however. the UN blacklisted some exporters linked with the FDLR and armed militias. the same air Economic & Political Weekly EPW transport companies also take in humanitarian aid to the affected countries and regions (Griffiths and Bromley 2009). Siemens. Refiners form the crucial link in the coltan supply chain. It is always the innocent ones who are the victims” (Prunier 2009: 174). in turn. are particularly abused and raped by either the soldiers or the mai mai. it is very likely that coltan from the Congo enters into raw materials processed by the US and German smelters. These exporters are registered with the Congolese government (17 in Bukavu and 24 in Goma). such as Sony. coltan goes through a fairly extensive supply chain before it ends up in the mobile phones we all use. therefore. there is no way of tracing the source of supply. One is the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition october 23. Germany. The circuit board. Samsung. Malaysia. Instead. As in many other parts of A frica. between the state and non-state armed units.COMMENTARY sexual and otherwise. with some DRC coltan found in materials processed in Kazakhstan. The buyer-transporters function as agents of the trading houses and are often paid in advance by them. Toshiba. including coltan. do not even have such a programme of certification. This is the key point where the governance of the coltan supply chain could be effectively strengthened. private. And. and extorting on a massive scale and subjecting the entire population to terror and misery” (Amnesty International 2000. such as the Cameroon-Chad border (Roitman 2004). brewing and petty commerce of all types. They are supposed to be registered with the Congolese government. both Cabot and Stark announced that they would not use DRC coltan. Since traceability has not yet been established and given that materials are mixed together at different stages along the supply chain.3 the bulk of their exports come from the Congo. The trading houses buy from the negociants and. The traders. The major manufacturers are Kemet and Vishay in the US. quoted in Jackson 2002: 527). and the mobile phone manufacturers. Once the ore is refined and turned into dust or wire. in turn. There are two major global corporate initiatives that require next-tier suppliers to implement industry codes. Samsung. at work in the fields and mines and elsewhere. In Uganda and Burundi. non-state actors and individuals from the armed forces are involved in the coltan trade. In 2008. a coalition of private businesses finances the coltan trade. China and Kazakhstan.

artisanal miners in conflict-zones are cut out and tracked purchase is restricted to the bigger mines. provide the essential public good of security and establish a monopoly of taxation in return for a guarantee that no one else would impose a tax. The larger armed units of states and the small armed groups (mai mai) both tax the mines and extort money or minerals at the checkpoints they control. Paul (2009): Wars. even if well-implemented with third party involvement. Janet (2004): “Productivity in the Margins: The Reconstitution of State Power in the Chad Basin” in Veena Das and Deborah Poole (ed. social upgrading. Ma (2009). Conflict coltan. use their position to collect some income for themselves. The question of establishing a mobile phone value chain free of conflict coltan. Griffiths.eicc. environmental and humanitarian issues associated with the extraction of certain metals used in the production of ICT equipment” particularly in the DRC.6 The efforts of EICC and GeSI in auditing coltan use “mineral tagging” or “finger printing” to trace the source. Prunier (2009). But merely establishing traceability at the smelter or processor levels will not release the miners from bondage relations with traders and armed intermediaries. Adelphi Paper No 320. What this means is that governance of the coltan value chain cannot be just a function of corporations’ supply chain governance. and most important. accessed on 9 October 2010. end up being exported from neighbouring countries.usgs. In particular. Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Delhi: Oxford University Press). october 23. Final Report of the Group of Experts (2008).org. Jackson. www. both finance and become a reason for armed conflict.pdf accessed on 24 July 2010. thus. www. www. and the DRC. itc.). vol xlv no 43 EPW Economic & Political Weekly 24 . would only certify that the coltan coming up the supply chain is not sourced from DRC’s or other conflict-ridden mines. David (1998): The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars. Ma. (accessed on 5 September 2010). org. Raeymaeker (2002). It is necessary to deal with the complex political economy of conflict in the Great Lakes Region. In Rwanda and other countries. United States Geological Survey (USGS) (2010): Report. including alluvial diamonds. As Keen (1998) puts it. like other easily extracted minerals. gesi. The International Institute of Strategic Studies. Hugh and Mark Bromley (2009): Air Transport and Destabilising Commodity Flows. it would quickly impoverish the tens of thousands of miners’ families as small. war is economics by other means. International Peace Information Service (2002): Jackson (2002). Coltan from DRC could easily. www. Tiffany (2009): China and Congo’s Coltan Connection. This the state alone can provide. Stephen (2002): “Making a Killing: Criminality and Coping in the Kivu War Economy”. is not only one of John and Sasha Lezhnev (2009): From Mine to Mobile Phone: The Conflict Minerals Supply Chain. Human Rights Watch (2009): You Will Be Punished: Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo. September-December. Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (New York: Harper). Prunier. On the one side. SIPRI Policy. “The Supply Chain Initiative” from http://www.enoughproject. Inter national Peace Information Service. including artisanal miners. 2010 with steps to establish a credible state. Cabot announced that it would not accept material containing coltan from not just Congo (Brazzaville). 93-94. or Rwanda (Cabot. coltan from the Congo is mixed with local coltan and then sold all together to be transported to the processors. GeSI recognise civil society campaigns such as MakeITFair which have highlighted “ % 20Conduct%20English. coltan remains the only survival strategy in response to a local economy profoundly destroyed by war” (Jackson 2002: 231). Lemarchand. There are two factors in this situation.aspx. to the extent that the supply chain is “cleaned” in this manner.ipis.hrw. This is the institutional failure at the root of what is called the “resource curse”. Other state. Pendergrast. Home Page. If better traceability stopped the coltan flowing from the DRC. Review of African Political Economy. Tim (2002): Network War: An Introduction to Congo’s Privatised War Economy. there is an absence of an effective state that can monopolise the use of force. In this condition. with measures to support artisanal miners. On the contrary. namely the armed forces of the DRC.COMMENTARY (EICC) which includes 40 global electronic companies but raw materials sourcing is excluded from the EICC Code of Conduct. 17:50. would need to be engaged and their legitimacy established. or the concern for the livelihoods of artisanal miners in the Congo. those who are supposed to be the agencies of the state. and Lemarchand (2009). even after the 2001 crash in price and the rationalisation of production. but to do this the state must have legitimacy in the eyes of the subject citizens. Project 2049 Institute. second. accessed on 24 July 2010. International Peace Information Service (2002): Supporting the War Economy in the DRC: European Companies and the Coltan Trade. turning what should be state revenue into personal income. civil society and international organisations. 13 December. Notes 1 The following account of coltan mining in the Congo draws on secondary sources: the UN Security Council. requires more than corporate governance measures. the result would be further destitution of the miners and their dependents. any armed unit that is able to impose control in a region is able to collect a tax in that region. “For many diggers. The audit process. one responsible to its citizens. But such measures should not just bypass the artisanal miners in conflict zones. twisting the Clausewitzian maxim. and often does. 28 April. Paper No 24. This would add to pressures to clean up the coltan and other conflict minerals’ value chain. Rather they should be a supplement to measures that would support states built on power-sharing multi-ethnic coalitions that are necessary to free the artisanal miners and the people of the conflict zones from the grip of the various military-commercial complexes. United Nations Security Council (2008): Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Statement on the BBC. S/2008/773. Wallstrom. in this case. UK (accessed on 1 September 2010). through local facilitation centres and finance and. Gerard (2009): Africa’s World War (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press). From Corporations to the State Consequently. International Trade Center (2010): Trade Data.5 The second is the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) which covers total supply chain governance and includes the leading Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies. On the other side. August 2008).7 The recent US Financial Services Reform Bill (the Reid-Dodd Bill of 2010) requires all US corporations to disclose what they are doing to ensure that their products do not contain conflict minerals. first. Roitman. London. This is similar to the mining of alluvial diamonds in western Africa. http://www. the matter of establishing state legitimacy could be seen as one of identifying a socially acceptable basis for collective action. www. 2 3 4 5 6 7 References Collier. but also Default. Rene (2009): The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press). Pendergrast and Lezhnev (2009). Burundi. See Paul Collier (2009). Traceability needs to be backed up. Margaret (2010): UN Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict. accessed on 27 July 2010.

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