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How Conflict Minerals Work


A gold merchant in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many mines are under the control of violent militias, rebels and other armed groups.
A gold merchant in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many mines are under the control of violent militias, rebels and other armed groups.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's not unusual to see early adopters line up for hours to get their hands on the latest technological gizmo. Our love of electronics sometimes borders on obsession. We have them in our cars, our homes, our schools and our offices. We use electronics to communicate, to work and to have fun. The shift to mobile devices has spawned even more consumerism. Households that may now have a mobile device for each member of the family.

Though electronic components rely on a variety of minerals to operate, in this article we'll look at four in particular: gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten. Engineers use thin strands of gold to bond to wires -- these strands are highly conductive and resist corrosion. Tin is a soldering agent. Tantalum is a component in capacitors, which you'll find in many electronics. And tungsten is a strong metal with a very high melting point -- it's useful for applications that generate a lot of heat, like light bulbs or electronic tubes.

We have to mine gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten ore, which we then have to process in refining and smelting operations. This ore comes from various mines around the world but one country has been in the news more than any other: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And here's where the dark side of our electronics obsession comes into play.

Over the last several years, the DRC has experienced massive political turmoil. Some of that comes from political issues within the country's government. But the DRC's neighbors, particularly Uganda and Rwanda on the DRC's eastern border, have also contributed to the instability in the DRC.

The mines in the DRC provide a source for revenue. In the eastern part of the DRC, these mines are contested, strategic resources for several armed groups, including Congolese and Rwandan troops. Several parts of the eastern DRC are essentially lawless and these armed groups use murder and rape to intimidate the native populations into mining resources. The military may tax the mines or even smuggle the ore out of the country to sell to smelting companies. Military groups then use the money to purchase weapons and otherwise fund their efforts.

The scenario is a bleak one and has prompted countries around the world to devise ways to end the cycle of violence and smuggling within the DRC. But to really understand conflict minerals, we have to look beyond the eastern DRC.

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