Most people who own a smartphone—or a laptop, or a new car—aren’t familiar with tantalum, the rare, blue-gray metal that conducts electricity through these devices. But thanks to skyrocketing demand from electronics makers, tantalum—along with a handful of other rare minerals—is an incredibly sought-after metal. And it’s fueling the ongoing conflict in Congo.
In the October 125th Anniversary issue of National Geographic, Jeffrey Gettleman and photographer Marcus Bleasdale travel into eastern Congo to investigate the current state of the country’s mineral trade, which Bleasdale describes as "an antlike army expending millions of calories and gallons of sweat to feed a vast and distant global industry."
Eastern Congo is home to a huge wealth of precious metals, though it’s one of the the poorest countries in the world. The country’s mines produce near half of the world’s supply of tantalum, as well as a large percentage of its tin ore, tungsten, gold, and dozens of other minerals used in electronics. And the militia groups that control them have long funded their activities by employing locals—and kids—to mine minerals in horrifying conditions.
These are “conflict minerals,” and they’ve been a simmering topic in the tech world for years (in 2010, Steve Jobs described it as “a very difficult problem”). The same year, Barack Obama signed a bill that required all public companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals, and companies like Intel and Motorola pledged to ban them. And indeed, some of these mines are now able to tag their products as “conflict free.”
But reform has been hard. Today, experts estimate that more than half of Congo’s mines are still controlled by rebel groups, and the reality of the situation remains murky. Gettleman and Bleasdale, for example, were detained at one site after stumbling into a “double game” where officials collude with rebels to profit from the mines.
Workers rip the earth apart in search of gold at the Sufferance mine in the Ituri region. Much of Congo’s gold, more than $600 million worth a year, is smuggled across borders. © Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.
Gettleman and Bleasdale visited Bavi, a gold mine being used as a “rebel ATM,” to fund new weaponry for a local warlord:
This is on the road to Bavi, a rebel-controlled gold mine on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s wild eastern edge. Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
The duo also visited a cassiterite (tin ore) mine whose militia owners were ousted a few years ago—today, this ore is tagged as “green,” meaning it’s free of conflict. But Gettleman reports that rebel-led smuggling from inside the mine’s network of slippery, hand-dug tunnels is still likely. The line between "green" and "red" mines is less than obvious: The reporters were arrested and detained for hours by local officials in Bavi, though the same officials are supposed to be calling attention to the issue rather than hiding—or even stoking—the flames.
So it's not clear whether legislation from the US that tries to regulate our intake of precious minerals is enough to spark reform within Congo. Many advocates argue that conflict minerals deserve a PR campaign similar to the one staged in the late 1990s about "blood diamonds," which ended up leading to widespread reforms. And in a video about the National Geographic story, Bleasdale argues that photography is the best way to communicate the situation to outsiders. Outrage from the consumers who fuel this trade is certainly a start—but the process of long-term reform is likely to be a much more complicated process. Check out some of his shots below. [National Geographic]
Gold is now the most lucrative of conflict minerals. Illicit profits from tin, tungsten, and tantalum have dropped 65 percent since 2010, when the campaign to link minerals with violence began gaining ground. © Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.
A boy waits his turn for spoonfuls of rice and beans in Pluto. In some areas of eastern Congo up to 40 percent of gold miners are children, often forcibly recruited by militias. © Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.
Already a soldier, a boy with an assault rifle pedals to base camp during fighting in the Ituri region in 2003. Photographer Marcus Bleasdale says that of all of his images from the Congo, this one has provoked the most response from the public. © Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.
A child is put to work at a militia-run mine in Watsa. © Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.