If you are one of the people who saw the Salvados program on Sunday, it is likely that this question has kept you awake. Now that your conscience knows where the coltan that powers up your cell phone (and other electronic devices that surround you) is extracted; now that you put a human face onto those who go down the mine; women and children most affected by violence in armed conflict in eastern Congo; now, you think, what do I do with my cell phone?
First option: not to have a cell phone
Broadly speaking, there are at least three ways to change the situation. If we start with the extreme, the most radical would be to get rid of your cell phone and not buy another again. But I do not think it is an affordable option for everyone, taking into account the countless family, work and social commitments that take us from screen to screen. Indeed, do not throw it away cheerfully. Hold on to what you have as long as possible. Now that you know the story of blood, sweat and tears that the device carries on its shoulders, learn to value it beyond its price. Consume responsibly, and when the moment comes to get rid of it, do not do it indiscriminately, but try to recycle or reuse it.
Second option: avoid conflict minerals
But above all, do not despair, you can still do something. The second option is to ask companies to completely avoid the use of conflict minerals (such as coltan, tin, tungsten or gold) in the manufacture of electronic components that are indispensable for assembling a cell phone. However, we will also rule this out because, although there are some interesting alternatives (such as the use of ceramic capacitors instead of conventional ones, which use coltan derivatives), today it is practically impossible to manufacture next generation devices without any of these minerals. In addition, unless you have chosen to be part of the new tribe of the disconnected, you probably do not want to go back to a substandard cell phone. And in the mining communities that you see on TV, despite everything, many people want to go on living from the mine, continuing to see the extraction of ore as a way out.
Third option: to force industries to be responsible
What to do then? We have a third option to take into account, to force the electronic industries to commit themselves to investigate and remedy the risks associated with human rights violations in their mineral supply chains. To achieve this, two paths can be taken: the legislative route, on the one hand, and the long march of the committed consumer, on the other. It goes without saying that neither is easy.
In the case of regulations, at least we have milestones that can guide our action. There are normative references, such as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which point out the individual responsibility of companies in the respect of human rights wherever they carry out their commercial activity. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas could also be cited, which identifies the steps companies can take to improve their transparency and to address the risks involved in dealing with their suppliers.
Both texts offer recommendations of a voluntary nature, but have inspired binding laws. In the United States, the Wall Street Reform Act, better known as the Dodd Frank Act, incorporates a section (1502) obliging US companies supplying minerals from the Great Lakes to apply the OECD guidelines.
As a result, US consumers can check the reports that are published, and act accordingly when buying a cell phone or other electronic device. Some studies warn that the information is still very poor. But the obligation to inform the public periodically implies a long-term business commitment.
Europe pledged to pass similar legislation two years ago and the final text will come out in December 2016. However, we have reason to think it is on its way to becoming a loophole. In the agreement reached on June 16 by the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament opted for a mixed system. Importers of finished products (cell phones, tablets, computers, etc.) were excluded, and only direct importers of four minerals (coltan, tin, tungsten and gold) will have to declare their origin.
To make matters worse, in metals such as gold, it is being proposed to set the minimum threshold to 100 kilos, which are worth about three million euros in the market. Companies that import less will be free of obligation. And with each transaction of three million euros, as you can imagine, many weapons can be bought in Africa.
So, we have to start the long march of the aware consumer. It begins by signing petitions to ask our policy makers for a more demanding law now while they are still on time. You can also ask technology companies to combat the scheduled obsolescence of their products. And if you need a cell phone, you can let them know about your supply policies before making a decision. You can even consider the possibility of buying a cell phone that values ethics more than benefits.
The bad news is that in the meantime, with or without laws, conflicts associated with mining will continue to produce casualties. The good news is that we are already talking about it. There are more people in this struggle. If you want to join, look for information in social networks using the hashtag #conflictminerals, participate in the Conflict-free Technology campaign that we launched from ALBOAN or support the initiatives of other civil society organizations that are working on it.Guillermo Otano, advocacy technician for the Conflict-free Technology campaign.
Article published in El País