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Born of War : Tracing rare earths and conflict minerals in our smartphones

Most of us have the urge to have our own personal hand-held device, the smartphone.

As avid consumers of technology, we tend to dispose of and buy new phones periodically and frequently, to keep up with the latest trend. We take into account factors like performance, battery life, colour, brand, etc before buying a new phone, with little active knowledge of how long we intend to use this device. We do now know, for instance, how and where the constituent minerals for our smartphones are sourced from, and how complex this journey can be.

We imagine that our smartphones are produced in a safe, neutral manner with no associated complications. However, research shows that this is not the case at all. Let’s dive into two major groups of problematic elements found in our smartphones: Rare Earth Elements and Conflict Minerals.

What are rare earths, and why are they in our phone?

Smartphones require components made from rare earth elements, or REE. Their nature of availability on the planet, challenges around mining and extraction, and the associated human rights issues deserve a spotlight.

Rare Earth Elements are Lanthanides found in the periodic table. Rare earth elements, contrary to their name, are abundantly present in the earth’s crust. However, these are difficult to separate from other elements in their minerals, which makes them ‘rare’.

The mining of REE can also be tricky. REE can be mined by two methods. Both of these methods cause harm to the environment and release toxic chemicals into the nearby water bodies.

Internal guidance report conducted by the Geological Survey of Finland, showed that - for every ton of rare earth produced, the mining process yields 13kg of dust, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, and one ton of radioactive residue.

In China, the Saponification method of Rare Earth refining creates 20,000 to 25,000 tons of waste water every year based on the 103,900 tons of rare earth oxides produced. As reported by The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), China produces over 130,000 metric tons of rare earth elements in one year which results in 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion cubic meters of waste gases.

A monopolised market and environmental harms

In addition to the ‘rare’ concentrations and the toxic mining process, the monopolised market of REE is the third point of concern. The REE market has been dominated by China due to their lax environmental regulations.

Did you know ? The price of REE per metric ton jumped from $50,000 in 2010 to $250,000 in 2011.

Unsafe working conditions and human rights abuses have been in practice in these mines in China. Damage to crops and livelihood leading to the extreme of forming ‘cancer villages’ in localities surrounding the mines have made China shift its mining operations to Africa. This move is to ensure the contamination and pollution happens in a far away land where the citizens of China are not affected by it. The exclusive rights to REE deposits are owned by China in exchange for infrastructure development in Africa. In order to disrupt the monopoly by China, the US government had decided to step in and restart some of the REE mining operations.

Largest REE deposits found in the world: Rare-earth mine in Bayan Obo, China.

All these Rare Earth Elements, which are sourced through such complex supply chains should be used more wisely because their recycle rate is <1%

Is your smartphone contributing to human conflict?

Mining process of some of the minerals used in the manufacturing of smartphones involve some serious issues such as human rights abuses. This includes the mining of minerals such as Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten and Gold (3TG) which lead to them being called the ‘Conflict minerals’. 3TG minerals contribute to important functionalities in your smartphone including, vibration, energy, joining of parts using solder, etc.

Conflict minerals, 3TG minerals are found in higher quantities in African countries like Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than 67% of tantalum comes from the DRC and Rwanda. Only less than 2% of Tin, Tungsten and Gold comes from the DRC.

Did you know? 5 million people have died as a consequence of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the past 15 years

What is the link between the mineral trade and the civil war?

The mining of these minerals is controlled and owned by militia and government troops in these regions. Once the civil war ended in 2003, the transitional government was unable to contain armed groups (who perpetrated violence against civilians), who rose into self-defense militias. Due to poverty, corruption and institutional chaos many civilians join the armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.

Before mining the ores, artisanal miners have to pay taxes to the armed groups as they are not protected by the government. These groups take over some of the mines and also engage in forced labour and exploitation of the local people to mine these resources. 3TG which are mined, are then smuggled illegally across the borders to other countries such as Rwanda and Uganda to fund the militia and their activities. Militant groups obtain weapons in exchange of 3TG minerals to fund their illegal activities and perpetuate war. During this process, severe human rights violations are committed by the militia including murder, rape and child labour. In some cases, people have also been buried underground! The latest report was that over 30 people in Kamitunga were buried underground in these mines.

This illegal mining trade plays a key role in keeping the DRC economy sustainable and offers protection to the people of Congo.

From Rwanda and Uganda, the minerals are shipped globally for smelting and combining with other metals. So at this stage, it is impossible to know where the minerals are mined from or if they were involved in conflict sourcing. Smartphone manufacturing companies then irresponsibly source these minerals to produce important components for the smartphone. This is how the conflict minerals 3TG end up in every single electronic device we use, in an untraceable way. Even those companies which claim that they are responsibly sourcing their minerals from the region, are relying on third party auditing companies and due diligence which is not authentic in many cases.

As a first step towards countering this illegal trade of conflict minerals, The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed by the US Congress in July 2010, includes a provision – Section 1502. This section requires companies to carry out their due diligence to determine the source of the conflict minerals, if present in their smartphone components. This section prevents the DRC profiting from the illegal mining trade and helps in controlling extortion and violence.

Think again : Are there any conflicts in the way your smartphone was produced?

How can we be more RESPONSIBLE consumers?

We as consumers, can request and drive smartphone manufacturers into sourcing minerals in a more responsible way. Several companies like Samsung, Intel, Microsoft, Tesla are part of the Responsible Minerals Initiative which have an audited list of smelters and refiners to ensure that they are sourcing minerals responsibly. Organisations like ITSCI, perform their due diligence at the level of the source i.e the mines. They train government agents to tag and seal bags that come from registered mines. Somehow, unregistered mines have also penetrated this process in due course showing that no system is foolproof.

What do experts say? Disengagement would lead to more poverty and instability, therefore the first step would be to decriminalise artisanal mining in such cases as they employ millions of civilians in Africa. Recognising them as legitimate is the first step to supporting them says Joanne Lebert, Executive Director, IMPACT

As manufacturers, companies can look for alternate elements which can be incorporated into smartphones instead of REE or conflict minerals while not compromising on functionality, performance, longevity, etc. Alternate methods of mining which are not heavily toxic to the environment and the people living nearby mining areas should be considered. Some companies like Fairphone, have taken up conflict-free, transparent sourcing of the four recognised conflict minerals and produced two smartphones. From responsible sourcing of minerals to advocating for safe working conditions to labourers, companies like Fairphone have prioritised sustainability as their primary goal in the manufacturing of smartphones.

Keeping these points in mind, before disposing of our current smartphones and doing adequate research about our smartphone manufacturers can help us become responsible, and well informed consumers.


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