A Deadly War Funded By Your Cell Phone: Conflict Minerals and The Congo (Interactivist, fall 2010)

written by MARYBETH BOGNAR

photo illustration by RACHAEL LEMKE
photographed by SARA SALMAN

My story from the InterActivist.  For more information about how to make a difference visit enoughproject.org

What if you found out that purchasing your next cell phone, iPod, laptop or video game was funding one of the most violent and deadly wars to date? The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently has claimed over 5.4 million lives, with that number growing each and every day. Such a large number can be hard to imagine. Consider Ohio University being completely wiped out 315.35 times. That is the impact this war is having on one African nation. Congo

Patrick Litanga is a Graduate Student at OU earning his degree in African Studies. Litanga lived in Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC, until 2000. He has had first-hand experience with the violence that is still going on there. “I met with child soldiers and was arrested twice. It was extremely frightening,” he said. “I was lucky they let me go because the child interrogating me spoke my language.”

The children that had captured Litanga were between 8 and 10 years old. Litanga was 21 at the time. These children carried large weapons and dressed in their war clothing. “I remember seeing an 8-year-old boy carrying an AK-47 that was covered in Mickey Mouse stickers [while] riding a BMX bike with a hip-hop necklace on—these kids were the ones deciding who will live and who was the enemy,” Litanga said.

There are four main minerals that technological agencies are purchasing from the DRC to use in electronics: tin, tantalum, gold and tungsten. These four materials are not only funding the war, but are giving it the incentive and means to continue to claim lives.

CongoAccording to Litanga, the areas where these minerals are found are located in a very dangerous corner of the DRC. In this corner, rebel armies from Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda (including exiled Hutu tribe members), as well as the Lord’s Resistance Army, are primarily located. In these areas, children are exploited and forced to work in mining, and women are raped. Everybody is at the mercy of the rebels. The minerals being mined are then shipped to a refinery in Australia. United States’ businesses purchase such minerals from this refinery because it is very cheap compared to minerals coming from other areas such as Canada. However, the U.S. isn’t the only country funding this war by buying conflict minerals—other countries, like China, are doing the same. Litanga believes there needs to be “international pressure” in order to make an effective change and have a chance at ending a war that has been going on since 1998.

Ohio University is giving its students a chance to step up and make their campus conflict-free. Ellie Hamrick, a student at OU, is an anthropology major who has taken the initiative to spread the word and inform her fellow students of this crisis that she is extremely passionate about. She urges students to pledge themselves to be conflict-free by going to the Enough Project webpage (www.enoughproject.org) and joining the national campaign called Raise Hope for Congo. Hamrick says that by joining this campaign, students will be pressuring electronic companies to purchase from suppliers who aren’t getting conflict minerals from the DRC. This marketing will hopefully cause companies to fall into the conflict-free cycle.

CongoIt is not an impossible task. “Stanford University has already become a conflict-free campus. It’s our turn to do the same,” Hamrick said.

Hamrick has a plan for OU since she has already had a great deal of success. Her first initiative was to start a Facebook group to spread awareness and keep students informed of her plan. The Facebook group, called “Bobcats for a Conflict-Free Campus,” already has over 200 members and is still growing. Hamrick’s first piece of advice for those wanting to participate in this movement is to “join the Facebook group to not only stay informed, but publicly show others how many people are committed to supporting this cause on Ohio University’s campus.” Hamrick’s next step was presenting a resolution for the cause to OU’s Student Senate. She said the resolution is “urging OU to alter elect by changing its purchasing policy, monitoring its supply chain and tracing the regions that their supplies come from.”

On Oct. 13, 2010, the resolution passed at the Student Senate meeting. Although Hamrick was the leader, others also contributed to the resolution, like Anna Weisheimer, a business major who is also an East Green representative for Student Senate. At the meeting, after many questions were asked, the resolution passed unanimously. Many of the student senators spoke in support of the bill.

This resolution was passed during the open dialogue portion of the meeting. “Student Senate makes the cause more legitimate by writing up a resolution and bringing it to students and possibly even Ohio University’s President Roderick McDavis,” said Weisheimer. She also mentioned that though the resolution passed, the administration will continue to communicate with the Information Technology department (OUIT) to spread even more awareness.

CongoWeisheimer thought it was important for the student body to know about this weekly opportunity to present ideas to Student Senate—especially for all student activists, like Hamrick, who are trying to make a difference for a cause they are passionate about. Those who are interested in taking an idea to Student Senate should use the Student Senate webpage, contact the office in Baker Center, or schedule a presentation at the speak-out section of their meetings. “They rarely have anyone participate in this section, and it would be nice to see students more active and involved to help Student Senate increase their visibility,” Weisheimer said. “This year’s Student Senate is very open to taking radical ideas seriously.” These meetings take place at 7:15 p.m. every Wednesday in Walter Hall, Room 235.

Passing the Student Senate resolution was the first step in the right direction to being a conflict-free campus. Hamrick’s next step is setting up meetings with the OUIT so she and other delegates can pressure them to keep track of where their electronics are coming from. Hamrick also plans to start a public pressure campaign on campus and use petitions, flyers, speakers and protests to raise more awareness. She believes that if more students show their support, it will show administrators how important this issue is to OU students and sway them to pledge their support as well. This would officially make OU a conflict-free campus.

According to Hamrick, “Older people [in their 60s and 70s] talk about our generation seeming inactive and unmotivated. I’m excited to see this movement develop on campus and affect our daily lives. It is huge and emotional, and something we have control over. Passing something like this because we have leverage gives hope for ending conflict and provides motivation.”

Litanga thinks that awareness and communication on campus are very important. Such communication helps students know which companies to purchase electronics from. Maybe those companies will eventually offer a student discount for supporting electronics that don’t use conflict minerals.

Hamrick urges people wanting to get involved to join the Facebook group and to contact her directly. A member can serve as a delegate, help advertise, participate in demonstrations, and pledge to be conflict-free themselves.

“There is no price for human rights,” Weisheimer said. Purchasing minerals from an area that is murdering millions, raping women, and recruiting children soldiers in order to get a cheaper product is an unethical practice. It’s time for this issue to be exposed. If OU students, as well as people around the world, pledge their support, they can help bring an end to the war that has caused death, pain and suffering to millions of people.

Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of The InterActivist.

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