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Guilt edged smartphones an unhappy Christmas gift

  • 19 December 2016


A few years ago I woke up on Christmas morning to see a small, neatly wrapped gift under the tree. The size and shape of the present were familiar and I was so excited to see my name on the gift tag.

I'd wanted a new phone all year — not that I didn't have one that was perfectly functional. I just really wanted one of those touch screens everyone else seemed to have.

A few months later I could no longer feel pride for my phone, instead just guilt. I'd sat down and watched a documentary about how phones just like mine were manufactured. I had discovered the minerals used in the manufacturing of my prized device were also responsible for funding the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite this, millions of people this Christmas will purchase phones, laptops and cameras as gifts. All these devices have one thing in common: coltan.

Coltan is the shortened name for columbite-tantalite, a dark mineral resembling tar. The Congo is home to the largest amount of this precious mineral, with the nation having over 80 per cent of the world's Coltan stores.

These little rocks aren't just shoved into the back of your iPhone, instead, they are refined to create a high grade, heat resistant powder. It's an important component in modern technology because it allows for a high electric charge.

The United Nations has been aware of the dark side of coltan mining in the DRC for some time. The 2001 UN report on The Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Congo found there are two major consequences of coltan mining. First, there has been an increase in money funding the Rwandan Patriotic Army as well as many Ugandan military commanders and civilians profiting individually.

The second problem is the emergence of large networks of these top military and business men who rely on the slavery of civilians in their mines. In other words, when we buy a new phone we are indirectly helping warmongers in Congo exploit civilians and continue funding the civil war.


"We put our trust in big brands and expect they are operating in fair and ethical ways all over the world. Coltan mining is just one of the many ways people in the developing world are exploited for Western luxuries."


The minerals, once out of the ground, are sold to companies who then make the devices, which are then sold to manufacturers