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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019
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Column: 'You don't survive there long' - inside the mobile phone mines

Children in war-ravaged Congo are mining the materials used to make our mobiles. Film-maker Frank Poulsen describes the horror inside the tunnels.

Frank Poulsen

TO GET TO the Bisie mine, first you fly to Kinshasa, in the west of DR Congo. Then you fly 2,000 km across the country to get to where the war is continuing, and you land in Goma, the capital of the eastern province. From there you fly a couple of hundred kilometres into the jungle by helicopter. Then you ride a motorbike for 200km or so. Then you start to walk, and it’s two, three days’ walk into the jungle, along a small, muddy path.

There’s a mineral called coltan, from which you make tantalum. In order to make electronic devices as small as mobile phones, you need tantalum to harden the steel in the circuit boards. There’s also cobalt for the batteries; cassiterite, which is also used for the circuit boards; and tungsten, which is used to make the phone vibrate. And a lot of these minerals come from this region in Congo. The Bisie mine produces somewhere between four and five per cent of the world market for cassiterite.

Over the last ten years, five million people have died as a consequence of the war in eastern Congo. In terms of casualties, it’s like the earthquake in Haiti every third month for the last ten years. Now, the war has social and ethnic origins. But very soon after it started, the mobile phone industry exploded – this was in the mid-1990s, when suddenly everybody got a mobile. So the price of these minerals sky-rocketed. And it became a license to print money for many of the armed groups who were fighting in the area.

Very soon the war started being about money, and they were fighting about access to these minerals. The armed groups go into an area, they take it over, they let the local population dig up the minerals – and they just impose taxes. They don’t even have to build a fence around the mine, because the jungle itself is a fence. So they just have a gate at the entrance, and tax everybody going in and out.

‘Nobody even cares to dig them out’

Inside the Bisie mine, it’s very, very hot. It’s moist, it’s loud, it’s full of people, it’s really a very claustrophobic place to be. And that’s the reason they use children, because they don’t have to dig the holes so big. The people going inside the mine would be maybe as young as ten, but typically they would be 13, 15 and upwards. But you don’t survive very long there, so you don’t see anybody above around 25. This is an area where you would have a hard time finding one woman who hasn’t been raped recently. It’s one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a human being.

The workers spend three four, days sometimes up to a week down in the hole. They’ll work for several hours, then sleep for 20 minutes, and then just keep on working. They just work and work and work, then come up and spend all the money – a beer costs seven dollars in this place. Then they go back down.

It’s like how you would imagine the Wild West during the gold rush. Really primitive, really desperate. These mines are made by amateurs – there are no engineers. Every month or so, one of the holes collapses and all the people inside die. And nobody even cares to dig them out. And on top of this desperation you have the armed groups who are controlling everything. People go there with the hope of making quick money, then going out and starting a new life. But they get trapped.

The mobile phone industry has been fuelling this war by buying the minerals. Right now there isn’t a phone on the market which is guaranteed conflict-mineral free. The Bisie mine produces somewhere between four and five per cent of the world market – so there is a four to five per cent chance that there are minerals from this particular mine in your phone.

‘You owe me an answer’

What the mobile and electronics industry are doing is ignoring it. Because they have very complex supply chains, and they hide behind the fact that these supply chains are very complex. They formed an industry-wide body called GeSI, to investigate these matters. But they’ve spent the last ten years commissioning studies, and having negotiations with NGOs, and nothing has really happened.

For my film, Blood In The Mobile, I decided to focus on Nokia. First of all because they are still by far the biggest phone producer in the world – every third phone on the planet is a Nokia. Also because they are market leaders in social responsibility. But most importantly, I went to them because I am a Nokia customer. So I could go and say ‘I’m your customer, and you owe me an answer because I’ve been buying your phones for the last 15 years’

I wrote a letter to Nokia, saying that I was making a film about this, and I was very interested in hearing how they were dealing with this issue. They didn’t reply, so I sent the mail again, and finally I got a two-line email saying ‘We don’t have the resources to participate in such a project.’ So I called them, for more than a year, every week, without even once getting somebody on the phone who would discuss this issue. But finally I went to Finland and confronted them. Eventually I got a 20-minute interview with the head of social responsibility. They just said ‘We’re doing all we can.’

I really wanted to work with them. I would say that Nokia had every chance to become the hero of my film. But they passed on that.

In the US, they are working on legislation that would make conflict minerals illegal. And I think we need the same in the EU, to try and regulate this market. We saw with the conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone that the Kimberley process [by which diamonds are traced] actually stopped the war. I truly believe that if we can stop the money flow to these armed groups, then that will end the war. It won’t solve all the problems of eastern Congo. But it will be the beginning. The more people talk about it, the more people who ask about this issue when they go and buy electronics – this will have an effect on the ground in Congo. For sure.

Frank Poulsen’s documentary Blood In The Mobile will be screened at the Galway Film Fleadh tomorrow at 3pm, with the director attending. As told to Michael Freeman.

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About the author:

Frank Poulsen

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