Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Conflict Minerals and the Game Industry: The Problem

Robert Rath | 15 Nov 2012 12:00
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There is a narrow hole in the ground in Eastern Congo. It's rough and hand dug, and looks like the burrow of an enormous snake. If you want to enter, you'll need to move at a stoop or a crouch. You'll need a headlamp, since the light doesn't penetrate more than a few feet past the tunnel's mouth. Further along you'll find wooden beams shoring up the walls and ceiling, some of them spongy with fungus. Go deeper-much deeper, since some of these tunnels run a hundred yards underground-and you'll find men. You'll see their backs first, shirtless and heavily muscled from digging the tunnel by hand with spikes and shovels. Their eyes are hugely dilated from working and sleeping underground, sometimes for 48 hours. Injury and death literally hangs above them and in the air around them: broken limbs and crushed skulls from cave-ins, suffocations from poisonous gasses. Most miners are men, but some mines prefer to use children since they can work in smaller spaces. The miners use dynamite to blast open the rock face then search the rubble by hand for the minerals.

Tin. Tantalum. Tungsten. Gold.

The minerals used to make our game consoles. And cell phones. And computers. On their journey from the ground to our TV stands, these minerals fund ethnic bloodshed, slavery, sexual violence, and a war that has killed somewhere between 2.7 and 5.4 million people.

These are what have been dubbed "conflict minerals," the biggest shadow export from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We hear about the game industry's use of conflict minerals from time to time, but mostly in a broad sense that doesn't provide much context to understand the problem or how the industry is making progress to address the issue. In this two-part series, Critical Intel will look at the problem of conflict minerals. Part one will explain the situation in detail, looking at how minerals come to our devices and how they help fuel war and instability. Part two will focus on possible solutions, and chart the progress individual companies in the game industry have made-or in the case of Nintendo, not made. But before we can talk about industry's role, we need to define and explore the problem.

A History of Blood and Rubber
Western exploitation of the Congo began in 1885, when King Leopold II of Belgium owned the country through his company, the International Association of the Congo. Though nominally a humanitarian mission, in reality Leopold's company was focused on extracting as much rubber from the country as possible via the use of slave labor. Belgian soldiers carried orders to shoot Congolese workers that didn't make quota, then hack off the worker's right hand to prove to their officers that they hadn't wasted a bullet. The exploitation was so shameful, even by European colonial standards, that public pressure forced Leopold to give up his ownership of the country in 1908 and annex the Congo as a formal colony. Though the most extreme policies ended, the de facto apartheid and economic exploitation of the region continued until Congolese resistance movements forced independence in 1960.

Despite the Congo holding its first democratic election in an orderly manner, the new country suddenly found itself fragmented by one of the worst legacies of colonialism: European-drawn borders that lumped various ethnic and regional groups together irrespective of tradition, culture, or ethnic animosity. Worse still, the proliferation of competing political factions and the rushed government transition exacerbated factionalism exponentially. Within months, the Congo splintered as army rebellions, secessionist movements, military coups and ethnic violence tore the country apart. One of the main questions was which faction would control the Congo's mines, since the mineral-rich Eastern provinces kept trying to secede. Things got crazier as foreign interventions and sponsorships increased-Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was arrested and executed during a CIA-backed coup after he requested Soviet aid to put down an insurrection, Belgian paratroopers ran hostage rescue ops to protect their citizens, and foreign mercenaries poured in from Europe and Africa. The UN sent their first armed peacekeeping mission, which soon found themselves in a shooting war. Even Che Guevara got involved, hoping to flip the country Marxist. When the Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, flew to the country to negotiate a ceasefire, his plane crashed for unknown reasons, killing everyone onboard.

The Congo Crisis ended in 1965 with a bloodless coup by the CIA-backed Congolese Army general Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, a dictator who plundered the Congo for personal gain, renamed it Zaire, and rather than paying the Army, told them to terrorize the populace for food and money. He was a repressive kleptocrat, but the U.S. government put up with him for more than thirty years because he supplied them with the cobalt necessary to produce fighter jets. Things deteriorated further during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when groups of both Hutus and Tutsis-including whole units of the Rwandan Army-fled across the border to Eastern Congo, taking both their guns and their ethnic hatreds with them. The strain was too much, and Mobutu was deposed in the First Congo War in favor of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who swept into office with military support from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Kabila suspended the constitution, renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was in office just long enough to prove he wasn't much better than Mobutu before getting assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. His son, Joseph Kabila, who led units of child soldiers for his father during the First Congo War, succeeded him and has been reelected twice. The government of the DRC still battles armed bands and separatist movements to this day, especially in Eastern Congo where the Second Congo War never really ended.

The DRC's history is a dizzying parade of coups, political infighting, and blink-and-you'll-miss-it governments, but one thing has always remained constant: In the DRC the path to power is through guns and control of the mineral wealth. Leopold had his rubber and ivory. Mobutu had his cobalt. Rebels financed their revolutionary activities with diamonds and minerals. The most powerful weapons in Congo are the AK-47 and the shovel.

The Minerals
Not long ago, the most desired minerals in the Congo were the infamous blood diamonds. But the world has changed since then, diamond smuggling is more difficult and less lucrative, and we in the first world have developed a new status symbol: gadgets. Computers, cell phones, gaming systems, anything electronic needs what the DRC mines can provide-and they can provide it cheap.

The conflict minerals most widely used in electronics are: tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. Tin is the main ingredient used to solder components to a circuit board. Small amounts of tungsten make your cell phone vibrate. Tantalum makes up most capacitors, the brown ibuprofen-looking nubs that store power in electronic devices, and it can also be used to improve acoustics in cell phones and TVs. Small amounts of gold make up the connections on circuit boards, as well as the ends of important connectors like HDMI cables. These are, largely, minerals we need to function in our computerized society. I'm typing this on a laptop that contains tin and tantalum. My iPhone sitting nearby includes both of those metals, as well as tungsten and gold. So how did they get here to my desk?

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