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The human cost of our obsession with smartphones

The human cost of our obsession with smartphones
By Euronews
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A look at the components of smartphones - and how they are mined - reveals a dark side to the mobile industry


Imagine you could see through your Smartphone. Imagine you could flip it inside out like you flip your phone’s camera, so you could see the faces of those who made your device and the journey that all the components of your phone made until arriving in your pocket. If you could, you may not like what you see.

Mobile phones have become a substantial part of our lives. They have broadened our capacity to stay in touch with each other, engage with the world and widen our access to education, health, financial services or information. There is not much left, it seems, that you cannot do with your phone.

Mobile connectivity has become a key driver for development around the globe, and yet it has a dark, vicious side, that governments, manufacturers and consumers are only now starting to address.

According to several environmental and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and The Global Witness Campaign, the phone and electronics industry plays a major role in fuelling armed conflicts in Africa, perpetuating poor labour conditions in Southeast Asia or Latin America and, in its way, polluting the environment.

In its 2015 report, the Global Witness Campaign states that only one in five surveyed companies complied with US legal requirements on conflict minerals. “The mineral trade has funded some of the world’s most brutal conflicts for decades. Today, resources from conflict or high-risk areas, such as parts of Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Zimbabwe, can fund armed groups and fuel human rights abuses”, the advocate group says.

Amnesty International released last year a specific case study on cobalt mining in the DRC and found that hazardous working conditions and child labour was widespread across the informal mineshafts in the region. According to this report, technology manufacturers using cobalt for their electric batteries are failing to carry out basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products.

“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

“If you look at the mines (in Congo) where they are mining, they just dig with a shovel. Sometimes they dig 30, 60 metres deep, under the ground, to get the stuff. I’ve been in those mines (…) and it is hard work”, Bas Van Abel, CEO and founder of Fairphone, the first ethical phone in the market, told Euronews on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

Fuelling conflict

“So they got the stuff out of the ground,” Van Abel continues, “risking their lives, and when they get out to the surface, they start selling it. There is military rule, and the rebel groups stand at the entrance of the mine and they say ‘Everything you make, I want half’. So they pay half of their money, and that money is used in conflicts. The money that is made out of the mining is fuelling the war. You could say that you are potentially funding a war by buying your phones.”

Fairphone, a Netherlands-based startup, was first conceived as an awareness campaign to raise awareness of the mineral trade, but soon it became a phone manufacturer itself. “One of the questions was how do we get the story on what’s happening behind the scenes, how do we get that all the way to the consumer. We could point at the bad guys, or we could make a phone, and by making it, we get that story all the way to the consumer. Our challenge was not to make a phone, but a phone with which we can change the system.”

Fairphone sets up traceable supply chains for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – the four recognised conflict minerals – while working on better working conditions at assembly factories and pushing for recycling and reuse.

“One of the main things I am pretty disappointed about when I walk around this Mobile World Congress, is that everybody is talking about trends, the next big thing. I think we forget one mega-trend, and that is sustainability. You don’t see the awareness and the urgency we have into changing things into a more sustainable way of consuming”, Fairphone CEO told Euronews.

“Conscientious consumers are growing, and growing,” he notes “but (the mobile industry) is harder to understand than food and cosmetics. If you ask what people find important in terms of sustainability, electronics come last. And why? Because electronics is a black box. We make products we can’t open them, it is complicated, it’s technology. So we don’t ask ourselves ‘Where does this come from?’ and ‘Who made it?’ But if you want to have more sustainable products, companies will facilitate that, because this is how the market works”.

So what’s in your phone?

Mobile phones contain hundreds of different materials, combining more than 40 elements. That is one third of the elements in the periodic table. Some of them are labeled as ‘blood minerals’ or ‘conflict minerals’.

Those terms are much older than phones. Some commodities like diamonds and gold have been fuelling conflicts across the globe for decades, becoming a substantial source of financing for the different camps of the conflict.

Mineral trading is at the core of a vicious circle, with armed groups fighting to control production as a means of survival and ultimately becoming one of the main reasons of confrontation.

Four of those ‘conflict minerals’ are part of the phones we carry in our hands: tantalum, tin,tungsten (or wolfram) and gold, known as the ‘3TG’.

Tantalum, also known as coltan, is a key component of many electronic gadgets. Large quantities of tantalum are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining, smuggling and illegal taxation has allegedly funded violent armed groups in one of the longest lasting ongoing conflicts on Earth. This material is mainly used to build capacitors to improve audio quality.


Gold, the most famous of the precious metals, has been traded for centuries as a source of war funding. Mobile phones contain a very small amount of gold, but it is highly appreciated for its heat and electric conduction properties. The metal is sourced from Latin America and Sub-Saharan countries like war-torn Central African Republic.

Tungsten is mainly used as part of the vibration element that makes our phones buzz when they ring. Its extreme heat resistance makes it key to many electronic tools. Its production and transport has been linked to violent armed groups in Colombia and central Africa, according to the Global Witness Campaign.

Tin is a very common metal in electronic products, cars or canned food. On our cellphones it makes up most of the Printed Circuit Board. It is mined throughout the world, including conflict affected areas.

Introducing legislation on ‘conflict minerals’

Thanks to an increase in consumer awareness, Europe and the US have started to pass legislation to trace back materials used in technology companies’ value chains to ensure decent working conditions and sustainable sourcing of conflict-free minerals.

In 2010, a landmark law was passed by the US Congress. It requires companies whose products contain tin, tantalum, tungsten or gold to conduct supply chain checks, known as due diligence, on minerals that may originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo or its nine neighbouring countries. Simply put, companies are asked to do their bit to make sure profits end up where they should, while building transparent supply chains that allow others to do the same.


In 2015, Global Witness and Amnesty International analysed the first set of submissions by companies reporting under Section 1502. Of the companies surveyed, according to the advocacy group, 79 percent were not yet meeting the minimum requirements of the law.

European Union legislators concluded in November 2016 their negotiations on a new law on so-called ‘conflict minerals’, a regulation which is meant to ensure that minerals entering the EU do not finance conflict or human rights violations. EU importers of tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold and their ores will from 2021 have to carry out checks on their suppliers in legislation that will also apply to smelters and refiners.

Although these new laws have been welcomed by campaigners, some find them “a half-hearted first step”, while others warn of the risks of letting conflict-torn countries down. As a result of these regulations, many consumer electronics companies are claimed to have completely stopped sourcing minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries, taking income away from areas that were already struggling economically.

“We work in Congo,” says Bas Van Able. “And we are probably one of the few mobile companies that say we know for sure that we have child labour in our supply chain. We are called Fairphone but we have child labour”.

“This is one of those dilemmas you run into: should we avoid an area because there’s conflict? Or avoid the mines where there is no conflict but are still in the area? Or do you stay there and take for granted that there is child labour and try to improve the situation? I think that what companies have been doing is to mitigate risk, so they avoid problems. I think we have to surface them and try to find solutions.”


“A lot of companies have left Africa, there’s almost an Africa ban from US-based companies, and the result of that is people lose jobs and they join the militias. You really need to look at the complexity of those situations, and how you behave as a company as well. Sometimes short term solutions have an opposite effect.”

Contributed by Jaime Velazquez

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