19 January 2008

A mobile phone costing the earth

By Marguerite Finn

Every time we purchase a new mobile phone, we marvel at the latest technological wizardry encased in a handset even smaller than the one we had before! There's no time to think about what goes into the tiny, dazzling 'gizmo' resting in the palm of our hand. Something happened to me last Saturday that made me look at my mobile phone in a new light.

Two Congolese women, at a meeting hosted by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told us the real story behind the beautiful phones in our pockets. Marie-Claire Faray and Marie-Louise Pambu gave riveting accounts of the struggles that Congolese women face on a daily basis in the on-going war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I don't think any one of the forty people at the meeting would have been quite the same when they left as when they came in. We learned in harrowing detail of the atrocities suffered by civilians – mainly women, children and the elderly - in this endless war, fuelled and funded by our continuing demand for mobile phones and the paraphernalia of our IT-driven lifestyle.

What have mobile phones got to do with war in the Congo? The problem is our ever-increasing demand for the DRC's resources – in particular, the mineral coltan. Columbite-tantalum, to give Coltan its formal name, is used in the manufacture of capacitors for phones, MP3s and computers because of its lightness and electrical conductivity. Coltan stays stable at very high temperatures, reduces corrosion and increases heat resistance. It's the only thing capable of making tiny electronic gadgets work well and is present in every processor-chip device.

The DRC, a country the size of Western Europe, has a variety of natural resources: gold, silver, zinc, copper, cobalt, diamonds - and 80 percent of the world's reserves of coltan. Yet the majority of inhabitants have very little to show for living in this resource-rich paradise. Seventy-five percent of the DRC's sixty million people live on an average of one dollar a day. Ten million have no access to drinking water and a similar number have no electricity. The DRC government doesn't exercise control over the eastern part of the country where coltan is mined. This area is controlled by foreign-backed, armed groups and the local inhabitants continue to be enslaved, raped, tortured and dispossessed, because of the greed and irresponsibility of international agencies involved in the coltan trade.

The DRC, a former Belgian colony, became independent in 1960. In 1961, the country's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown with US and European support for a Cold War ally, Mobutu, and for the rich resources that would then be available cheaply, rather than used for Congo's own people and development. US policy toward Mobutu was rationalized on the grounds of "fighting communism" in Africa, but the US was more concerned with securing its own strategic interests in the region. For thirty years, the US propped-up the dictator Mobutu, providing more than $300 million in weapons and $100 million in military training. Mobutu used his US-supplied arsenal to repress his own people and plunder his nation’s economy until his brutal regime was overthrown in 1997. The DRC has suffered from resource wars and external interference ever since.

The deadliest of these wars took place between 1998 and 2003 involving troops from nine countries. Wars are not fought without weapons and the UK obligingly sold arms to Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola supporting the DRC regime, while at the same time supplying Uganda and Rwanda who were opposing them. The war resulted in the deaths of 4 million people, mainly from disease and starvation. A further 2.25 million were driven from their homes. Although a peace treaty was signed in 2003, the fighting continues, as externally-sponsored militia run the mining and transportation of the DRC's minerals out of the country. The Rwandan army is estimated to have made $20 million a month by selling coltan pillaged from the mines in the Kivu region - enough to finance any war and provide little incentive for peace.

As the Congolese women spoke in Norwich, we became aware that what the DRC needs now is not more official reports on rape and human rights abuses, but for the war to end – and end now. This will not happen as long as we continue selling arms indiscriminately and frustrating the UN's attempts to end the slaughter (UN Security Council Resolution 1457).

Before buying your next mobile phone, ask your supplier – and your MP – if it's free from the blood of innocent victims – and remember to recycle your old one too!