Your favorite tech devices could be funding wars in Africa

"Conflict minerals" mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo are often found in smartphones, laptops and tablets

Topics: Scientific American, Social Media, Civil War, minerals, tech companies, ,

Your favorite tech devices could be funding wars in AfricaUnited Nations peacekeepers patrol near their encampment in the village of Kimua, deep in the heart of territory controlled by Rwandan Hutu rebels, in eastern Congo. (Credit: AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

Scientific AmericanHard to believe that our mundane social media banter could have an impact on the civil war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for more than a decade. The problem isn’t the content of these messages, it’s the devices used to send them. Smartphones, tablets, PCs and other devices often have electrical components made from so-called “conflict minerals”—gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten—taken from mines in the DRC, where armed groups take a cut of the profits to fund their violent campaigns.

Chipmaker Intel used last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to spotlight this problem and declare that its microprocessors are now free of conflict minerals from the DRC. It’s easy to question how such a large manufacturer at the end of a long supply chain can make such a claim, and the extent to which high-tech companies working with the small number of mines not involved in the DRC conflict can seriously cut funding to warring groups. Still, Intel says it has taken steps to have its suppliers—in particular, the smelters that extract metals from mined ore—audited by third-party companies and certify that they are not cooperating with extortion efforts that funnel money to local warlords.

Intel is several steps removed from the actual purchase of raw materials and relies on a multilayer supply chain to build the microprocessors that power our computing devices. Rather than pull its business from suppliers that deal with the DRC mines, however, the company opted to evaluate the components of its microprocessors, trace the different materials back to their source and make sure those mines aren’t funding violence in that country, CEO Brian Krzanich said at CES.

The idea of conflict minerals was relatively obscure four years ago when the Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nongovernmental organization, brought the issue to Intel’s attention. Although only a handful of mines in the DRC are conflict free, Intel’s work has encouraged other companies to likewise examine the sources of their products’ raw materials, Enough Project policy director Sasha Lezhnev said at CES.

Tech companies don’t use as much of these minerals as other industries, such as jewelry makers. Yet gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin play an important role in our gadgets. Like many device manufacturers, Intel relies on highly conductive gold in circuit cards, connectors and certain assembly and test packaging. The company uses tantalum in some of its capacitors and in the “sputtering” deposition process used to make its semiconductors. Tungsten also plays a limited role in the semiconductor fabrication process. Tin, meanwhile, is a key component in the silver-tin solder that attaches electronic components to their circuit boards.

Intel had been making strides to reduce its use of conflict minerals prior to last week’s announcement and topped the Enough Project’s 2012 list ranking electronics companies for their efforts. HP, Philips, SanDisk and chipmaker AMD rounded out the top five, while Nintendo, HTC, Sharp, Nikon and Canon were at the bottom, based on their lack of cooperation with and acknowledgement of Enough’s efforts.

Intel may be ahead of the curve in cleansing its supply chain of conflict minerals, but in August 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, began requiring companies to annually disclose the sources of the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum used in their products. (pdf) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have filed a lawsuit against the SEC in response to its new rules, but companies will still have to get their first disclosure reports to the agency by May 31.

Intel’s conflict mineral supply-chain auditing was done as part of the Conflict-Free Smelter assessment program run by the high-tech industry groups Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC)—which has Intel on its board of directors—and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). This voluntary program relies on independent third-party evaluations of smelter and refiner procurement activities and determines if the smelter or refiner demonstrated that all the materials they processed originated from conflict-free sources. The program also maintains a list of compliant suppliers worldwide.

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