“I have heard that minerals used in mobile phones are coming from the eastern Congo.”
- Frank Poulsen
“We don’t have anybody who can comment on that today.”
- Nokia spokesperson
That’s a snatch from a conversation that unfolds in Danish documentary Blood in the Mobile scheduled for a Mumbai screening next week. Directed by Frank Poulsen, the film reveals the dark side of cellphones, and the price being paid in Africa to meet our obsessive demand for mobiles.
Poulsen traces the use of minerals — the source of metal — illegally mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in North Africa, that end up in electronics, including cellphones. Rich in natural resources, DRC has a history of colonial exploitation.
The film reveals how a breakaway portion of the Congolese militia is engaged in a civil war, which involves the mining of casseterite and Columbite-tantalite, the natural ore for tin and tantalum, in Walikale in Northern Kivu region.
Tin and tantalum end up in circuit boards of electronics, including smartphones and laptops. “The minerals mined from eastern Congo ores find their way to almost all electronics. All big electronics companies are implicated,” says film producer Ole Tornbjerg in a telephonic interview.
Poulsen made three trips to DRC between 2007 and 2010, and visited Bise, a mine in Walikale to ascertain the truth. He found that the Bise mine alone has a daily yield of 30 tonnes of casseterite.
That’s worth USD 70 million (Rs 388 crore) a year. Not only do miners work endlessly in narrow tunnels, they also pay heavy taxes to the 85th brigade, the breakaway faction of the Congolese army FRDC. It’s estimated that over five million people have been killed in Eastern Congo since 1998.
From a war to your phone
Several metals, including aluminium, lead, copper and in some cases, gold are used in mobiles. Tantalum is a heat-resistant metal vital to creating capacitors that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tin is used to solder various parts of the circuit board.
• Director Frank Poulsen; producer Ole Tornbjerg; a DRC miner; the circuit of a mobile phone
Poulsen knocked on the doors of Nokia Corporation for over a year to find out if they use conflict minerals in their phones. After much hedging, the phone company revealed that while they were aware of the situation since 2001, it hasn’t been easy to track where the metals come from.
Once extracted, metals are processed and sent to suppliers that make various phone components. For instance, Nokia sources its cell phone parts from suppliers in countries like Malaysia and India. These suppliers either re-use metal or source it from across the world.
But the conundrum remained unsolved: if Nokia kept buying components from suppliers without checking the origin of the metal, the suppliers in turn could keep buying minerals from DRC, and armed groups would be able to fund weapons to kill.
In the January to March quarter this year alone, over 50 million handsets sold in India, making us the second largest mobile phone market globally. According to the Telecom Regulation Authority of India, we’re set to rise to world number 1 next year.
When contacted by Mirror, Samsung, which overtook Nokia as world leader in the mobile phone market earlier this year, remained unavailable for comment.
Nokia India told Mirror that they are taking up the issue of conflict minerals.
Together with other electronics companies, Nokia was part of a pilot implementation of due diligence guidelines for tin, tantalum and tungsten procured from Central Africa till June 2012.
“We require our suppliers to map out their supply chains in order to achieve traceability at least to smelter level.
Once mechanisms become available, suppliers will be required to ensure that purchased metals originate from smelters validated as being conflict mineral-free,” an email from Nokia stated.
In the film, Poulsen was told by Nokia that there is no mechanism to determine where the raw material comes from. Yet, the film reveals that technology that tracks metals to their ores exists.
According to a 2011 risk list of the British Geological Survey, 52 elements — including tin and tantalum — are needed to maintain our current lifestyle. A majority of the elements come from China, Brazil and Russia.
“We are not saying don’t use metals in cellphones. Just don’t source them from conflict zones, because then we end up financing those wars,” says Tornbjerg.