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Guilt edged smartphones an unhappy Christmas gift



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.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston shows the three wise men presenting an iPhone to an appalled Holy Family.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 such as Apple and Samsung. This lengthy supply chain provides ethical protection to companies like Apple; they just buy the parts and don't ask what child had to climb into a dangerous dusty mineshaft to make it happen. The lack of transparency in these supply chains is why consumers are in the dark about the relationship between technology manufacturing and blood minerals.

The problem consumers face is not knowing the true depth of a company's supply chain. The United Nations report does not place blame on large multi-national corporations for the conflict in DRC, but says these companies are providing 'the engine of the conflict'.

In the 2010 film Blood in the Mobile, Danish filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulsen investigates the supply chain of the Finish phone manufacturer Nokia. He goes to extreme lengths to find out the answer to the question, 'Is there blood in my mobile?'

The average consumer, unlike Poulsen, can't jump on a flight to Congo before deciding whether or not to purchase a new iPhone. Instead, we put trust every day in the little 'ethical standards' section on the Apple website. 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. Consumers have the right to find out the true cost of the technology being bought.

This Christmas, it really is the thought that counts when giving gifts.


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers. Keep an eye out for more of her columns in 2017.

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, iPhones, Christmas



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Existing comments

Gorillas in the Congo are one of the species impacted by the illegal coltan mining. Donating your old phone to Zoos Victoria's They're Calling on You campaign helps raise funds to help the Gorilla Doctors. These vets are working in tough conditions to help wild gorillas often injured by human impact on their habitat. Find out more on the Zoos website: www.zoo.org.au/callingonyou

Judith Henke | 19 December 2016  

Thanks Francine. I'm old school when it comes to mobiles but even these come at a cost (other components mined and recycled) and try as I might to hold on to a minimalist approach to my handset we are moving to 4G with 3G eventually being turned off and my current product won't cope so either I upgrade or become disconnected altogether...we can write to corporations...but that won't impact their bottom line and noting what Judith has written donating old phones can help Gorillas...what can be done to help the exploited civilians working in the mines? We need a creative answer as the imperative to consume technology is likely to forge ahead unabated...you mention Apple, Samsung and Nokia what about Huawei and others.

Gordana Martinovich | 20 December 2016  

An alarming piece of journalism, thank you. Curious to know if you know of any ethically made phones? What to do now...? I use his technology everyday as a teacher! All the best Francine, Regards Ray

Ray Ellwood | 21 December 2016  

Ok cool. So I work in an industry where a smartphone and a laptop are an absolute necessity. Without them, no job. And no job equals no house, no means of support for my family. What should i do? The above sounds a little defensive, but articles like this frustrate me. No doubt the author can't expected to come up with a neat solution to the problem, and the article is probably supposed to "make me think". Well, I'm thinking. Hope the kids in the coltan mines understand how deeply I'm pondering this. But any thoughts on a course of action Francine?

Sian | 21 December 2016  

In the early 2000's approximately 45% of coltan came out of Australian mines. Today it is about 4% thanks to shifts in exchange rates and the general cost of mining here suggesting our phones have more murky background than what they did 2 decades ago.

Catheirne | 21 December 2016  

After reading this I feel I should throw out all of my clothes manufactured in China because of the guilt I feel because of that country's abysmal human rights abuses. I won't go to the movies again or watch any American film content on TV because then I will be supporting weapons manufacture and uninvited military excursions in other peoples homelands in the name of a dubious democracy. I simply can't cope with that. And as for some of the English toys I have bought for my grandchildren for Christmas in the face of Britain's commercial and military excursions in the war on terrorism and all the refugees that has generated. I'm afraid all the toys will have to be taken back to the shops for a refund. I simply couldn't live with the guilt of what I have done.

john frawley | 21 December 2016  

Thanks for your article, Francine. The message is disturbing and appears to have evoked some indignation because you have not provided the answer. The canary that gave a warning of gasleaks in the coalmine was not expected to remedy the impending disaster. Please don't be put off. For the rest of us there is an ethical challenge. Given the fact that our life style compromises us in many ways, how do we live towards remedy and prevention of harm to those caught up in the means of production? Together with humility and courage we can find ways toward improvement when we hear what is being said.

alex nelson | 21 December 2016  

Coltan is also available in Nigeria and is used in the space rockets, etc. The rape of Africa goes on and on.

ANNE ODOGWU | 21 December 2016  

So what is my alternative? WHen I need a phone, what do I buy? Suggestions please?

MMB | 21 December 2016  

Alex, you ask "how do we live towards remedy?" The answer is simple - don't buy any product produced in countries that abuse human rites in any way. In other words, give up all mod cons and most clothing. It really can't happen can it? The solution can only be to redesign the human being. I find it very difficult to understand how God could have created such a flawed creature in his image. Surely God is not as flawed as we, his image. Is he?

john frawley | 21 December 2016  

John Frawley, the "he" God is an idol and quite unscriptural. What about the "mother bear" God and the "mother hen" God and the "birthing Rock" God. Perhaps if we were to relate to and worship God as multi-faceted Love we might begin to work our way out of our single-minded exploitation of Earth.

Janet | 21 December 2016  

Thank you Francine.. so important and so well written.

wendy Louis | 21 December 2016  

Dear Francine. Thanks for your great article. I encourage you to write more of such. But you have highlighted one component of the many that go into manufacturing the goods for our consumerist culture. It's the whole consumerist mentality that needs to be addressed; I need, I want, give me... I encourage you to challenge us more.

John Pettit | 21 December 2016  

I don't carry a phone. Never started. I said 'there are enough hours in the day when people can ring me, I'm not going to give them more.' Maybe I'm mean and unsociable, but I think now I did the right thing.

Gavan | 21 December 2016  

"I find it very difficult to understand how God could have created such a flawed creature in his image. Surely God is not as flawed as we, his image. Is he?" God creates babies. How the babies grow up is up to us.

Roy Chen Yee | 21 December 2016  

Alex:-"how do we live towards remedy and prevention of harm "? In one way it is complicated. "to straighten out a piece of corrugated iron, it is counter-productive to try to straighten out just one bend". In another way it is simple; the change we want to see in the world needs to begin within our selves. We all need to become more in tune with the Spirit of God, more united with ALL of God's children, and then our combined efforts will shine through, and raise our minds and hearts.

Robert Liddy | 22 December 2016  

Too easy to consume without asking where it all coms from - thanks for your splendid article. I'm rather proud now of being a dinosaur who doesn't have a smart phone....and should tell you my paternal grandma was Mary Crimmins!

paul finnane | 22 December 2016  

Roy Chen Yee: "Surely God is not as flawed as we, his image. Is he?" It was not God who said we were made in his image, but vicariously, us. However, 'God can be seen in a grain of sand'. We DO reflect something of God, and sometimes to a greater degree than the grain of sand, but not always; often just the opposite. Also the concept we, with our limited minds, create of God is too often in the image of 'Man', and usually not Man at his best.

Robert Liddy | 22 December 2016  

It is so encouraging to find a young person writing about social responsibility. Not sure if this is the correct place or not, but I wish all at ES a genuinely peaceful Christmas time, based not on consumerism but on good will.

Tony | 23 December 2016  

Great article Francine - I can use it next year in teaching my Cert III Course Christian Ministry & Theology.

Mark Pickham | 23 December 2016  

Excellent article. The hedonism of the west has always entailed a heavy cost for the super-exploited Global South. It's good to see this being exposed for what it is.

Daniel Read | 23 December 2016  

Thank you Francine. -a partial solution is provided by the"Ethical Electronics Guide"from Baptist World Aid. They grade companies according to Slavery/Labour Rights and Living Wage Guarantee.They also publish an Ethical Fashion Guide.Go to www.behindthebarcode.org.au For the bigger picture and lots of practical hints go to acrath.org.au/slavery free purchasing

Margaret Hounslow | 19 January 2017  

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