Editor’s Note: This post is intended to provide a contextual background for understanding the complex issues that the Enough Project works on. It is part of the series Enough 101.
One of the main entry points the Enough Project’s Raise Hope for Congo campaign utilizes to raise public awareness about the war in eastern Congo is our personal connection to the conflict as consumers. Through electronic devices, we are all linked to the widespread atrocities that have made Congo’s conflict the deadliest since World War II.
The term “conflict minerals” refers to minerals that are extracted and sold to finance armed groups or perpetrators of violence. In eastern Congo, this term specifically refers to four minerals that are extracted from mines controlled by armed groups and illicitly sold, or smuggled out of the country and sold, to companies. Gold is the first conflict mineral, and tungsten, tin, and tantalum are collectively known as the 3Ts. As they come out of the ground in Congo, gold and the 3Ts are minerals; they become metals as they are smelted by companies further down the supply chain. Gold and the 3Ts are common in consumer electronics, such as cell phones and laptops, as well as in jewelry and cars. By understanding where these minerals come from, why they are necessary in the worldwide electronics and jewelry markets, and what impact the supply chain policies of companies like Apple, Motorola, and Tiffany & Co. can have on armed commanders in Congo, consumers can make educated decisions about buying conflict-free electronics and other products when they are available, and thereby become advocates for the Congolese people.
Gold is perhaps the most well known conflict mineral/metal and the one that armed groups are now making the most money from in eastern Congo, as they have switched mainly from tin and tantalum. It is used mainly in jewelry (60 percent, according to the World Gold Council), but also in investments and electronics (around 10 percent). It is the most malleable of the four conflict minerals, because it can be melted down virtually right at the mine or in one’s house or basement. Gold is very resistant to corrosion and heat and highly conductive of electricity. These chemical properties make gold ideal not only for jewelry and currency but also for use in wiring and coating connections in electronics. Large gold deposits are also found in China, the United States, and Australia.
Tantalum, which can also be found in Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Ethiopia, is a rare, dense, and strong metal resistant to corrosion and used mainly in electronics (around 60-75 percent). In fact, it is one of the few metals that is almost entirely resistant to acidic solutions and is therefore widely used in medical tools and implants. Tantalum has a high melting point of 3017° F and is a strong conductor of both electricity and heat. Due to these properties, this metal is widely used in capacitors and high-power resistors in cellphones, computers, and automotive parts. The “smarter” your phone or laptop is, the more tantalum capacitors it has in it, because of tantalum’s excellent heat-resistant qualities.
Tungsten is a strong, dense metal that can retain a great amount of heat without melting. Of all metals, tungsten has the highest melting point in pure form at a staggering 6,192° F. For these reasons, tungsten is often used in aerospace applications, such as in components of rocket nozzles. More commonly, however, tungsten is used in the filaments of light bulbs and heating elements. Outside of the Congo, tungsten can be found most abundantly in China and Russia.
Tin is a lightweight metal that can be easily deformed but resists corrosion from both air and water. Due to its low melting point of about 450° F, tin is often used as the major ingredient in soldering compounds that are employed to connect elements in electronic circuit boards, like those found in laptops and cellphones. Tin is also used in metal alloys. Tin is also extracted from mines in China, southeast Asia, and South America.
While you may not think you have a direct link to these conflict minerals, they are in most popular consumer electronics. Companies like Apple, Panasonic, and Toshiba, among others, have likely all worked through their suppliers with Congolese mines for years . By purchasing the 3Ts and gold from suppliers that source from conflict mines, companies have funded the armed groups that control those mines and use violence as a tool to control the surrounding communities. Today, some leading companies are starting to change this equation through tracing, auditing, and certification steps. As consumers, we can put pressure on electronics, jewelry, and other companies to clean up their supply chains and exclusively source these minerals from certified conflict-free mines in eastern Congo—to benefit and promote Congolese communities rather than destabilize them. To see how your favorite technology companies are progressing toward becoming conflict free, check out our company rankings.