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November 15, 2012

Conflict minerals: what Americans can do!

poverty, birth mortality, children, environment


Ever wonder what’s inside your computer that keeps it running? How about how your phone vibrates or rings? These are the questions that the Enough Project, which does advocacy work around conflict minerals, hopes consumers will ask before purchasing electronics in their quest to rid the industry of minerals-based violence. Conflict minerals are defined as minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, the profits of which fund purchasing of weapons or to support military actions. The Global Poverty Project’s US tour team sat down with John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, to learn more about this important problem.

There are four minerals that are of primary concern: gold and also what Prendergast calls the three T’s, tantalum, tungsten, and tin. Gold coats the wires inside of computers, tantalum stores electricity, tungsten makes phones vibrate, and tin is used as a solder to keep all the parts in place. These minerals can be found in locations that are not in places of armed conflict, like Australia, although not as cheaply. Conflict minerals are also much harder to trace since they are mixed with minerals from around the world soon after they are smuggled across borders.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one such conflict-ridden nation that has used its mineral-rich reserves to fund rebel militias. According to Prendergast it’s one of the deadliest conflicts since WWII, and from 1996, over 5.5 million have died from war-related causes with over 2 million citizens displaced from their homes. Rebel militias use rape of women as their primary means to control and subdue the local populations.

Which leaves us wondering, why isn’t this in the news every day? In a recent article for USA Today, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, questions why there has been a decisive call for action in the Middle East, where there is a fraction of the violence—1000 deaths in Egypt, 1000 in Syria, and 5000 in Yemen—yet not a murmur regarding the 7.75 million war-related deaths in the Congo and Sudan.

“It really is a recipe,” explains Prendergast, “When the big powers and international institutions involve themselves they often do so in the most meaningful ways when they are supported by a substantial portion of the citizenry and the role of activist is to find ways to creatively work with as many people as they can to actively recruit…to build the political will of our institutions to act.”

Prendergast believe it is especially important for students and young professionals in the United States to get involved, as they are the primary “wild card” in the upcoming elections and are the largest purchasers of smartphones and computers. According to Prendergast, if students and young professionals make these issues known, Presidential candidates will take notice to secure their potential votes.

“It’s fashionable to be cynical in this day of age, but at the end of the day when we do band together and find common cause with other citizens that care about these issues and when we form the networks online and in person, we’ve actually seen these changes happen. That’s where I get hope from.”


By Danielle Goldshneider in the Global Poverty Project Blog