Families fleeing renewed fighting between the Democratic Republic of the Congo army and rebels walk toward the eastern city of Goma July 24. Congolese rebels and government forces traded heavy weapons fire around two eastern villages, forcing thousands of civilians to flee towards the provincial capital days ahead of a regional summit called to address the rebellion. (CNS photo/James Akena, Reuters)
Congolese rebels and government forces traded heavy weapons fire around two eastern villages, forcing thousands of civilians to flee towards the provincial capital days ahead of a regional summit called to address the rebellion. (CNS photo/James Akena, Reuters) (July 2012 photo.)

By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

Back in August I had to change my cell phone plan which meant that I could get an iPhone as part of the new contract that I signed with my phone provider. Which means that I’m now an iPhone user and which also means that after years of struggling (and most of the time failing) to do something as simple as access my phone messages, it’s now a piece of cake, even for someone as technically challenged as yours truly. A screen pops up which provides me with two choices – listen to message (green tab) or delete message (red tab). I tap on the green tab and I’m listening to a phone message.

And although my son tells me that watching me try to operate a cellphone is like watching a monkey trying to start a car, every day I discover another useful application for my phone. It’s a useful tool in living my life and in doing ministry and I’m grateful to be able to own one.

I appreciate owning an iPhone but I don’t appreciate that a proportion of the four key minerals used by Apple and the other manufacturers of cellphones, computers and digital cameras are what are known as “conflict minerals.” Tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold are mined all over the world but in the Democratic Republic of Congo these minerals are particularly abundant and sought after for the manufacturing of consumer electronics. Demand is high and manufacturers pay hundreds of millions of dollars for these raw materials.

You would expect that this would be a huge benefit for the people of Congo, which is, per capita, the poorest country in the world despite its abundant natural resources. Far from benefiting Congo, vast mineral wealth and “conflict minerals” have been a catastrophe for ordinary Congolese people, especially in the war-torn eastern half of the country.

Why is this? In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, civil war broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict in Congo slowly but inexorably escalated, drawing in most of the countries of central Africa. The United Nations estimates that since 1996 when the war began in earnest , over 5.4 million soldiers and civilians have been killed in the violence or from war related causes and another 2 million civilians have been forced to leave their homes as refugees. Although the international conflict came to an end in 2003, and despite the presence of 20,000 UN peacekeepers, a variety of warlords and their militias continue to fight each other and the central government in Eastern Congo.

They fight each other for power and access to tungsten, gold, tantalum and tin. By trading in these “conflict minerals” they are able to earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year to buy arms and ammunition, pay their soldiers and enrich their leaders.

The conflict in Congo has been particularly devastating to women and girls. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been abducted and raped by armed militias and government troops as a military strategy intended to destroy their real or perceived ethnic or political opponents by humiliating and shaming the women of the civilian population.

Conflict minerals both fuel and fund the civil war in Congo and the horrendous violence against women. Although there are international agreements that prohibit the export of conflict minerals, they continue to be smuggled out of Congo to neighboring countries (many of whom also mine these minerals and are legally allowed to export them), where they are smelted into metal and enter the supply chain.

There has been some progress in moving towards conflict-free electronics. In 2010 the Congress passed legislation requiring that companies trace and audit their supply chains for ‘conflict minerals.’ Watchdog groups such as Greenpeace and Enough report that some companies, such as Intel, HP, Philips and Apple have made real progress in changing their practices, although they all have a long way to go insuring that there is a clean minerals trade in Congo.
Catholic Relief Services, which has been working with the local Church and with Caritas to help refugees displaced by the violence, has expanded its outreach in Eastern Congo to provide women and girls who are survivors of rape with needed counseling, medical care and education. CRS, along with the Catholic Bishops of the United States, also support national and international steps to eliminate the trade in ‘conflict minerals’ and to begin to insure that the mineral wealth of Congo benefits rather than harms its citizens.

We too have a role as citizens and as disciples of Jesus. Every consumer electronic manufacturer has a website. If you own a cell phone or a computer, now is the time to contact the manufacturer and tell them that you want them to do more to completely eliminate the ‘conflict minerals’ in their products. We can also continue to support the relief and development work of CRS in Congo and around the world. And, to pray and fast for peace and healing for all of the people of Congo.

Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23. Email: charlesr@gci.net