U.S. protesters want to make sure their smart phones use "conflict-free" minerals
U.S. protesters want to make sure their smart phones use "conflict-free" minerals

Protesters recently gathered at the opening of a new Apple store in Washington.  Some customers, excited to see the showroom of new iPads, said they had no idea of the possible links between Apple products and Congo's lingering and devastating war.

The U.S.-based Enough Project recently released a video on the Internet spoofing Apple ads, where a personal computer has a conversation with an Apple computer.

"Hey PC, what do you have in your pockets?  Oh just a couple pieces of uh ... let us see.  Here is some tin, and this is called tantalum and this is tungsten.  I call these the three "T"s.  Oh, and here is some gold.  You have to have gold.  And you know what is funny, a lot of this stuff comes all the way from the Congo, where it has been fueling the deadliest conflict in the world since World War II."

The director of communications at Enough Project, Jonathan Hutson, is encouraged by the video's impact.

"Today, it has racked up half a million views on YouTube, so the video has gone viral," he said. "It just keeps picking up steam.  The bloggers are sharing it and consumers are demanding that we be given a choice to buy conflict-free cell phones, laptops and cameras, so the campaign is only gaining momentum."

A consultant on the campaign, Sasha Lezhnev, says he hopes there will be an international response similar to ending the war in Sierra Leone, and the trade of so-called "blood diamonds."

"I quit my last job to work full-time on this issue just because it has been going for so long, and yet the solution has not been arrived at yet," he said. "Ten years ago, some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] as well as the British government and others dealt more firmly with the situation in Sierra Leone, the conflict diamonds, the war out there, there was an intervention and the war ended.  That has not been accomplished for eastern Congo yet.  And especially, when we learn that we are all connected to eastern Congo.  Every time we turn on our cell phones, that is a conflict mineral.  Every time our cell phone vibrates, that is another conflict mineral.  So the fact that we are connected and the situation is so urgent, it draws so many more people to get involved."  

Congo awareness events have become some of the most highly attended protests on college campuses across the United States, coinciding with the increasing popularity of so-called smart phones, such as Apple's iPhone.

But the executive director of the U.S.-based group Friends of the Congo, Maurice Carney, says he feels not enough emphasis is placed on mining companies, some of them based in the United States, which he says are more directly involved in war profiteering.

"It is focusing on the phones to the exclusion of the well-documented corporate actors who have been in the Congo systematically looting the Congo for its wealth," he said. "So, for example, the phone companies and the tech companies, they are part of a supply chain, which are six to seven steps down the supply chain.  So what about those companies, which are currently directly involved in the Congo and those who have been implicated over the last 14 years?  There has been a remarkable silence on those corporations."

One of the companies accused by a U.N. group of experts of dealing in conflict minerals, Nevada-based Niotan, categorically denied the reports.

Carney also accuses Congo's neighbors Rwanda and Uganda of backing armed groups to pilfer minerals from eastern Congo, charges those governments have also repeatedly denied.

Apple, the target of most of the U.S. protesters, responded to an interview request with an e-mail by employee Steve Dowling explaining that it requires its suppliers to declare their metals do not come from illegal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A supplier responsibility 2010 progress report says tantalum poses a particular challenge since the supply chain consists of many types of businesses, from mines to brokers, processors and refiners.

The Apple report says that the combination of a lengthy supply chain and refining process makes it difficult to track and trace tantalum from the mine to finished products, but that Apple is tackling the challenge.

Hi-tech industry watchers admit it is very difficult to estimate the percentage of minerals used in high-tech products that come from eastern Congo.  Estimates range from below 10 percent to a third.

But protesters say they would still like to see guarantees that their products are conflict free, while also seeing more of an international effort to improve the human rights situation in eastern Congo and help end the ongoing war.  The conflict in eastern Congo involves rebels, militias and Congo's army, and has been marked by tens of thousands of rapes, despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.