Of Smarphones, Conflict Minerals & Tainted Childhoods

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As a kid, I used to be extremely curious, and dreamed of becoming a scientist one day. As soon as I would get home from school, even before I could change my uniform – the red knickers and the white shirt – I would, very enthusiastically, run to the rusty store-room in our house. This used to be the lab, where I would break open all the old electronic gadgets, dissect the black-white television and age-old radio sets, play with the copper wires and try to make sense out of all of the tiny yet fascinating parts of things. Eventually my desire of being a scientist faded with time. I am an adult now, and  it seems that, along with my childhood, that dexterity and curiosity is also a thing of the past.

It’s not just the loss of those conscientious things that bothers me. A lot of other things seem to have changed for worse since that time. The more life I have seen, the more I have realized that you, me, and all of us, are increasingly moving inside a storm of consumerism, as classical economist Walt Whitman Rostow described- The Age of Mass Consumption. Every day, we get hold of new products and discard the old ones without optimally utilizing them. As in case of the new age smart phones, a lot of us, be it the older generation or the younger generation, go on buying new phones every year and the old ones are mostly left in our drawers as antiques. With increasing demand for smart phones, there is tremendous pressure of manufacturers to expand production limits and as a consequential result, the already scarce environmental resources are exploited and other social issues germinate as well.

Let`s consider some important minerals used in our phones. Tantalum is used primarily to store electricity and is extracted from an ore called coltan which is primarily found in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Tungsten makes sure that our phone vibrates and tin is used in making circuit boards. Combined with gold, which used to coat the wiring, these form the “conflict minerals”. The demand for these elements led to the Congo conflict of 2008. The funds that come from illegal mining finance the soldiers and their weapons contribute to the conflict that has already cost 5 million lives. [1] It’s funny how this small thing that we hold in our hands is capable of affecting lives in some distant country.

Its sad that only a fraction of these perfectly reusable minerals are harvested from our used phones before they’re trashed. But even that pales in comparison to the true revelation of how a society’s insatiable desire for the latest and greatest technology is literally killing those who have no other option but to work in the mines [2]. It worries me, when I imagine that the domino effect of my demands as a consumer can impact childhoods in different parts of the world. Childhoods which are meant to be spent wondering and exploring, now tainted with a thick layer of mineral dust from the mining site.

I know I will have a lot to consider now, before using the words “need” “new” and “smartphone” in the same sentence ever again. Are there are any “conflict-free” versions around?


The images are “from the October issue of National Geographic magazine.”  A child is put to work at a militia-run mine in Watsa.

Yash Batra the writer of this article, is a part of Team Ecofolk & a student of Christ university. Feel free to share your thoughts about this article with Yash and the rest of the team at ecofolkteam@gmail.com