The beginning of the academic year once meant new clothes, shoes, and notebooks. These days, it increasingly means new computers, iPods, and mobile phones. One company, Apple, is giving away a "free" iPod to every student, faculty, and staff who buys a MacBook. The word "free" is terribly deceptive. The human cost of mineral extraction in the high-tech industry remains intolerable. A report released earlier this year by Global Witness delineates how multinational companies are pillaging natural resources and fueling holocaust in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The organization warns that corporations, politicians, military, and militia groups in the Congo have plundered the country's natural wealth and used it to enrich themselves to the detriment of the local population. The research team conducting the report says it found evidence that the mineral trade is far more pervasive and lucrative than previously suspected. Global Witness, which is the same nongovernmental organization that brought worldwide attention to the blood diamond industry, also documented life-threatening labor conditions in the Congo's natural resource sector.
The 110-page report, "Faced with a gun, what can you do?'", details how companies are buying from suppliers who trade in minerals from the warring parties. Rebels and the national army control many mining areas in eastern DRC, violently exploiting civilians to retain access to valuable minerals such as cassiterite (tin ore), coltan and gold. Cassiterite and coltan are used to make myriad electronics, including computers and mobile phones.
By buying minerals from despots, corporations have created an illegal war economy in the Congo that is taking a grave human toll. Johann Hari, one of the few journalists who has extensively covered the impact of our technology-obsessed society on the people of the Congo, wrote last year in The Independent: "The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe is starting again-and you are almost certainly carrying a blood-soaked chunk of the slaughter in your pocket." Hari goes on to describe how the horrendous civil war in the Congo, which has claimed over 5.4 million lives, is fueled by our insatiable lust for new gadgets and gizmos.
Global Witness identified four main European and Asian companies as open buyers in this blood-tainted trade: Thailand Smelting and Refining Corp. (owned by British Amalgamated Metal Corp.), British Afrimex, Belgian Trademet and Traxys. Other companies scrutinized in the report include prominent electronics companies Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Dell and Motorola. Although these companies' actions may technically fall within legal proscriptions, Global Witness criticizes their lack of regulatory oversight and transparency standards at every level of their supply chain.
Accused companies are quick to profess their innocence, blaming volatile geopolitical environments and deep-seated ethnic strife for continuing violence in the Congo. Other companies, such as Apple, have pegged themselves as the ethical-consumerist option. "Protecting the environment is critical to the conservation of precious natural resources and the continued health of our planet," writes the company on its website. "We require Apple suppliers using Tantalum or Tungsten, metals used in a small number of components, to declare that the metals are not sourced from illegal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo." This caveat raises more questions than it answers. What regulations prevent suppliers from engaging in deception given the high monetary incentive to do so? How does Apple monitor where minerals originated (metals may change hands as many as seven times before reaching electronics companies)? Does Apple use other minerals extracted from illegal mines in the Congo in its Macbooks, iPods and iPhones? "It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups," Patrick Alley, Director of Global Witness, stated in a press release.
It's difficult to believe that none of the +11 million iPods that Apple sold in its fourth fiscal quarter in 2008 alone has any trace of cobalt of other precious metals that are fueling conflict in the Congo. If they genuinely do not, Apple should make this information readily and transparently available on its website (as well as respond to journalists' phone calls). While its unfair to pick on Apple in particular, the company must be held to a higher standard because it currently enjoys the self-branded image of a responsible computer manufacturer. Also, Apple's new back-to-school special is encouraging wanton consumerism by equipping students with "free" iPods regardless of them needing one. Another reason to pressure Apple to spearhead efforts for responsible mineral extraction is because the company has proven receptive to public pressure in the past. Following several campaigns (for example, Green my Apple), the company improved its products' battery life and recharge cycles as well as removed many toxins from its new notebook line.
Unfortunately, right now, Apple seems far more concerned with making their product the latest status symbol for college students than supporting an ethical-consumerist agenda. College students should think twice before allowing electronic companies to seduce them with yet another flashy gadget; after all, the point of college is to understand how the world works, and our role within that world. The tag-line for Apple's new promotion is "a Mac and an iPod will make your college life a little easier and a lot more fun." The company's current cavalier disposition towards the ramifications of the high-tech industry coupled with its implicitly hedonistic attitude-pursue convenience and fun at all costs-is the antithesis of what a college experience should provide students, namely a sense of social responsibility.