Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Guest Blog: Is There Blood In Your Mobile?

Rosalie Tostevin is a PhD student and GfGD Ambassador at University College London (UCL). Her current research is looking at the link between ocean chemistry and the emergence of the first animal life. She has a strong interest in improving science communication and the ethical behaviour of the geoscience industry. Rosalie writes today about the terrible situation in central Africa regarding conflict minerals and the negative impact on communities - her post finishes with a strong call to action.

I recently went to a screening of Frank Poulson’s film, “Blood in the Mobile”, which investigates the use of conflict minerals in electronic products. Here I review the main message of the film and discuss the role for geoscientists may play in resolving the conflict.

RC (Source: CIA)
The wilderness of Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is littered with mines. The land is rich in coltan (tantalum ore - an essential component in many electronics) and many other minerals that the developed world depends on. Young men and children stay down unstable mine shafts for up to a week at a time in crowded unsanitary conditions. Unregulated soldiers earn money by taxing the miners every time they pass through control points and then take the product across the border to be distributed around the world.

Profit from the mining industry is fuelling the various militia groups in the area, a hangover from the end of the civil war in 2003. War is good for business - not only in the DRC, but in the West too. The US, China and Western Europe are making large amounts of profit from equipping them with arms.

Militia groups are outside of UN control, despite peacekeeping troops in the region constituting the UN’s second largest source of expenditure in 2011. Many of us were recently reminded of the situation in central Africa by the Kony 2012 campaign. The Lords Resistance Army (LRA) is now predominantly operating in eastern Congo alongside many other groups. There are countless stories of on-going war crimes and human rights abuses. Rape is being used as a weapon to tear apart communities and clear them off the land in order to ensure access to natural resources.

Joseph Kabila (Source: US Defense)
Charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children are providing short-term relief and support for the victims, who are overwhelmingly women and children. However, there has not been enough focus on the underlying drivers of the humanitarian and developmental crisis. The militia groups are uncontrollable because of the unstable and corrupt political system. President Joseph Kabila came to power in the DRC’s first democratic elections in 2006. He also claimed victory in the recent election, which is riddled with accusations of rigging. The recognition of his leadership by the international community has angered many citizens of the DRC, both in the DRC and around the world. Protests have been organised every two days at the DRC embassy in London but have been largely unreported by the British press. Shana Mongwanga-Eloko, from ‘Africa lives!’ has been promoting campaigns driven by Congolese women. The Congolese people are fighting back, though if you watched the Kony 2012 video, you would be forgiven for thinking only westerners are trying to ‘save the Congo’.

How can we make a difference? Certainly not by sharing a viral video and it’s not as simple as a donation to charity either. There are two groups benefitting from this conflict: electronics companies and arms dealers. We need to legislate to ensure electronics companies publish their supply chain so that consumers can make informed ethical choices.

Blood in the Mobile
The geoscience community needs to develop a method of tracing mineral ores using geochemical fingerprints and radiometric dating techniques. Current efforts are focused on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, which generates a chemical profile that can then be compared to a master sample from a known location. Once the ore is processed it can no longer be fingerprinted, so it is necessary to test ores at an early stage, perhaps even in the field. However, no laboratory in the DRC is currently equipped to run these experiments. Companies such as Nokia claim they cannot trace or confirm the source of the minerals used in our phones. The film’s conclusion: we all have blood in our mobiles.