‘Tea and Convo’ discusses conflict materials, ethics



The materials that go into your smart phone have a story beyond the factory it came from. Coltan, one of the most common metals used in capacitors for smart phones and mobile devices, is a conflict mineral, meaning it’s mined in a way that causes some sort of harm to native populations.
Stephanie Barnhizer, an instructor in the philosophy department, gave a talk on some of the ethical questions of manufacturing smart phones titled “The High Cost of Charging your Selfie: Unethical Sourcing of Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo” as part of the women’s studies department’s “Tea and Conversation” series Monday.
Barnhizer said she became interested in conflict minerals after attending a lecture on ethical consumerism at Mercyhurst University.
“I wanted to show you this because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it,” Barnhizer said. “Technology is such a huge part of our lives.”
Coltan mined in the Congo is controlled by rebel gangs who monopolize the resource with no benefit to the people in the surrounding land. Control is maintained by employing child miners who are underpaid and sexual abuse of the village women to dominate the men.
Once the raw minerals are collected, the gangs sell them to neighboring countries like Uganda for further processing. Once the minerals are refined, it is almost impossible to find out where they were sourced.
“They’re sitting on trillions of dollars of rare minerals; fortunately or unfortunately [the Congo] possess this, but they can’t access it,” Barnhizer said. “Their land is being looted and it’s awful.”
Dick Moodey, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology, pointed out that this exploitation is not a new problem in the Congo.
“The Congo has been one of the most exploited regions since the Belgians were in charge,” Moodey said. “One of the reasons the Congo cannot have a stable country was the American overthrow of King Lumba, who was the one hopeful democratic candidate.”
Almost 3 million people have been forced out of their homes due to conflict mineral mining. Barnhizer said this inhumanity has been going on for a long time.
Carolyn Baugh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history and the director of the women’s studies program, expressed concern she has not found a cellphone company that ethically sources its materials.
“And this has become a pressing issue because my phone just went through the spin cycle this morning,” she joked.
What are the options for consumers? Project Enough offers a list of companies who take accountability for their products and the materials that go into them so you can make a more informed decision when updating electronics.
Some of the companies that do not meet the standards decided by the Dodd-Frank Act passed by former president Barack Obama are Amazon, Google and Apple – three of the superpowers in technology sales. One big name, Hewlett-Packard, however, does meet the standard.
Barnhizer completed her talk with a discussion on selfies and feminine identity, and how that plays into young girls forming an “identity” online.
Baugh cited her 17-year-old daughter as part of the group who puts grave importance on her social media presence.
“She’s highly functioning, a straight-A student — but once you take the phone away she goes into hysterics,” Baugh said.
Taylor Roth, a graduate student of English, said she had never heard of conflict minerals before.
“It’s a super bummer,” Roth said. “But at the same time, I need my phone. There’s nothing we as consumers can do about it — we can’t change laws in China or South America.
“The only thing we can do is lobby for child labor laws in those countries. It’s the double-edged sword of blissful ignorance.”

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