While I certainly know that we are all connected, sometimes I forget. Not today. I was shaken out of my complacency today. I usually think I’m doing my best to go green and save the world, making solid choices, trying to consume less, and teaching my children to do the same. But, sometimes some story or event comes along and smacks you in the face, jolting you so much that you have to go out and do something. And thus, an advocate is born. Or hatched. Or created.
A story this week on Yahoo! Games regarding The Playstation War shook me out of my complacent, I’m-mostly-doing-good-in-the-world, minivan mom bliss. And, before I go on, let me share that I don’t have a diamond wedding ring. When my husband proposed, I asked for a white sapphire with no diamonds to avoid buying any conflict diamonds (yes, he got off easy – my engagement ring and my wedding ring were $780 together).
I thought I was pretty up on things. So when I read the story on The Playstation War I was ashamed about my lack of knowledge.
So what is the so-called Playstation War? It is re-naming of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that supposedly lasted from approximately 1998 to 2003, but that continues to this day. It is based upon the surge in demand for coltan created by the worldwide demand for the PlayStation 2 console that resulted in the illegal removal of coltan from the DRC.
Briefly, coltan is used for Playstation 2 consoles, as well as other electronics. A huge increase in the price for coltan caused Rwandan military groups, militias supported by the Rwandan government and others, including allegedly western-based mining companies according to a story by Toward Freedom, to seek out this rare metal in the DRC. They have allegedly forced prisoners of war and children to work in the mines, devastated the natural habitat and environment, and slaughtered endangered species for food. And, coltan has funded the Rwandan military groups. That’s right – like conflict diamonds – coltan has financed Rwandan military groups.
Okay, so what is coltan? It is the name for columbo-tantalite mined in Africa, among other locations, and is a raw material used in electronics. Coltan, once it is refined, becomes tantalum. And tantalum is important to electronics because it can hold high electric charges without heating up – making a great capacitor and extremely useful for our compact, modern electronics. So, it is used to make cell phones, laptops, and other electronics, including the Playstation 2 console. In fact, one expert opined that the loss of coltan would devastate the electronics industry.
Coltan mining occurs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Burundi and Rwanda. Australia reportedly produces 60% of the world’s coltan, although the largest reserves – reportedly 64% of the world’s reserves, are in the DRC (and 80% of the world’s reserves are in Africa). However, a statement by Senator Brownback states that 80% of the world’s coltan comes from mines in the DRC, although I think that he is referring to the reserve.
What’s the issue? From 1999 to 2001, the world price of tantalum went from $49 per pound to $275 per pound, and one report has it as high as $500 per pound, and thus a coltan miner could make as much as $50 per month in Congo, compared with the average wage of $10. This price escalation resulted in an influx of people willing to mine coltan, and a devastation of the surrounding forest environment and also hunting of endangered or threatened species for food. One estimate is that lowland gorilla populations were cut in half. Of course, animals have also been affected by the loss of habitat.
In addition, the attractive reserves of coltan and the high prices resulted in the Rwanda military and Rwanda militias illegally stealing coltan from Congo and using the profit to finance the invasion of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda. You might not know all the ins and outs of the conflict, but you know that that’s really a kicker – using the profit to finance the heinous activities.
So how does Sony’s Playstation get blamed? The price escalation. And why the price escalation? Sony’s Playstation 2 uses tantalum and launched in spring of 2000. The worldwide demand for the Playstation 2 console resulted in a high demand for coltan. Experts have charged that it would be inconceivable that Sony made all of its Playstations without using Congolese coltan.
Reports from the United Nations brought the issue to light in 2001 – 2003. For the most part, the issue was deemed resolved and most of the companies were cleared, distancing themselves by saying that they didn’t know the situation and weren’t responsible.
Okay, so perhaps they didn’t. I don’t really know. But the situation continues today. The conflict continues in the DRC. As stated by Senator Brownback,
While children under the age of 5 make up 19 percent of the population in the Congo, they comprise over 47 percent of the deaths in the recent mortality study. Nineteen percent of the population under the age of 5, 47 percent of the deaths in Congo.
The national rate of mortality is 60 percent higher in the Congo than the average mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa. Sexual violence and rape is also on the rise in the Congo and has become a symptomatic tool of war there.
The U.N. reported 4,500 sexual violence cases had been reported in South Kivu the first half of 2007. Most of these cases reported have been committed by some of the 6,000 to 7,000 members of foreign armed groups operating in the eastern part of the Congo, funded by coltan that we purchase to put in our Blackberries.
The U.N. reported that the Congolese national army, national police force, and increasing numbers of civilians were also brutalizing women, often during violent clashes with political rivals. Perpetrators are now making no distinctions between women and children. The local hospital in Goma, Congo, where Senator Durbin and I both visited, a hospital named Heal Africa, tells a story of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped so viciously by her perpetrators that she couldn’t walk for 2 weeks. She then walked approximately 7 miles to a facility for treatment. Her doctors reported her internal injuries were beyond their imagination.
Okay, so what’s the issue. I don’t want to create demand for a commodity that funds a horrible war, forces children to labor in mines, devastates the environment and results in the hunting of endangered and threatened species. I don’t want to fund it. I don’t want to buy things that fund it. I want the conflict to cease – not to continue.
So what can we do? I don’t think I’m going to convince you to give up your cell phones and other electronics. But what we can do is demand transparency from electronic manufacturers and certification about material sources – that they are obtained ethically, humanely and in a sustainable manner.