Archive for coltan

Resources, conflict and Japan

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 November, 2010 by Virgil

Mining in the DRC. Photo by FairPhone under a CC Licence

It is easy to forget how closely connected the world is. After all, the media have very little time/space for events happening beyond the borders of the country in which they are based, unless people from the home country are directly involved. Nationalism is a powerful force in most countries in the world and patriotism helps sell the news.

But the world is irreversibly and closely connected at all levels. Talking about how events in the outside world do not affect ‘us’ is a reflection of how unaware we are about this reality. No stones have been left unturned in modern history in our search for the cheapest possible goods and services. Goods that can be produced locally will be shipped in from the other side of the globe if government subsidies or getting away with impossibly cheap labour make those goods just that little bit cheaper. If those the acquisition of such goods contributes to a conflict, political instability, or the illegal occupation of another country, then so be it.

The key for those selling the cheaper goods from distant lands is ensuring that the consumer is unaware of what had happened for the goods to reach them, or the effect that this business is having on a conflict or on the environment. This is usually not that hard – the news media serve as a powerful barrier to understanding what is happening in the outside world. In any case, the world is an extremely complex place (which is a major inhibitor in itself), and consumers have a strong interest in what is happening closer to home, not to mention in low prices.

The nationalist slant of the media, while rampant throughout the world, is perhaps particularly pronounced in Japan. Just 1 or 2 pages of a 30-page newspaper are devoted to events in the outside world, and coverage levels of the world on television news are arguably even lower. This makes the Japanese public highly insulated from awareness about the economic connections between Japan and many conflict-prone countries.

But the connections are undeniable. Consider some of these facts:

It has been estimated that some 90 percent of the world’s supply of tantalum (used in capacitors in electronic goods) for 2009 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where conflict continues, and where armed groups (the national army included) still control many of the mines. The powerful Japanese electronics industry cannot do without this mineral.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is also coming from the DRC. Much of Japan’s supply comes via Finland. Demand for cobalt is skyrocketing because of a massive increase in lithium ion battery production necessary for making ‘environmentally friendly’ electric cars in Japan. The mining of cobalt in the DRC is far from being environmentally friendly.

More than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire (but you will not find a single bar of chocolate made in that country). Few chocolate eaters in Japan know this or have any idea that there was a conflict in that country – one fuelled by the illicit trade in this commodity (known in this case as ‘hot chocolate’).

Roughly 70 percent of the frozen octopus imported by Japan is from Morocco. At least that is what the labels on the packs say. But a sizable portion of this ‘Moroccan’ octopus is actually coming from the waters of Western Sahara. The bulk of this ‘country’ remains under Moroccan occupation (incidentally, Western Sahara is a member of the African Union, Morocco is not). The occupied zone is protected by a great wall of sand (2,500 km long) and the world’s longest continuous minefield. The EU is coming under fire because of a fisheries agreement with Morocco that enables it access to Western Saharan waters, although the outcry is limited because media coverage of the situation is so low. With media coverage of this situation virtually non-existent in Japan, Japanese imports of octopus from Western Sahara have sparked no outcries at all.

These are just some of the connections (and I haven’t even mentioned oil). The world is certainly globalizing at a rapid pace. Perhaps it’s time the media started to think about catching on and catching up.

Advertisements

The DRC conflict and Japan

Posted in conflict, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 November, 2009 by Virgil

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the greatest stealth conflict of all time. It is a tragic irony that in spite of the fact that the availability of information about the world is at a level unprecedented in human history, the deadliest conflict since World War II can remain largely unknown to the world at large. This doesn’t say much for the real-world value (in terms of awareness about conflict) of the internet, jet airplanes, satellite videophones and other forms of technology that have supposedly made our world so much smaller.

The media have to take a large portion of the blame for this. The amount of reporting devoted to international news has dropped considerably since the end of the Cold War and regional biases (heavy on the ‘home’ region and almost always very light on Africa) are as pronounced as ever. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan. International news in Japanese newspapers accounts for just 1 (sometimes 2) of the roughly 30 pages printed, and Africa is even more neglected in Japan than it is in Western media. The Yomiuri Newspaper devoted just 1.9 percent of its international news to the African continent in 2000 (compared to 6.9 percent in the New York Times – see here for more).

The results are evident in the levels of public awareness of the conflict. In a simple survey conducted by the author in 2008, a class of 151 first year university students were asked a single question “Which armed conflict in the world since the end of the Cold War do you think has been the deadliest?” The top three answers were Iraq (death toll: >500,000?), Kosovo (death toll: 10,000) and Israel-Palestine (death toll: 5,000). Of the 151 students, not a single one could come up with the DRC (death toll: 5,400,000). The results are also evident in government policy. Over the past ten years, the Japanese government has given 47 times more aid to Iraq than it has to the DRC. It is also worth noting that the amount of research produced at Japanese universities about the world’s deadliest conflict is negligible.

All of this is rather odd, given the heavy reliance of the Japanese electronics industry on rare metals – many of which are found in abundance in the DRC (not least tantalum, of which Japan is a major consumer). The issue of rare metals was recently a front-page story on the Japanese edition of the Economist, and campaigns to recycle mobile phones and other electronic devices in Japan for the rare metals inside are taking place around the country. Economically, concern over access to rare metals seems to be of growing importance for Japan.

Some have even referred to the DRC conflict as the ‘PlayStation War’. The peak of tantalum prices in 2000 coincided with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Global shortages in tantalum contributed to the failure of Sony to produce enough consoles to keep up with demand, and at the same time, the boosted demand for tantalum contributed to the violent scramble for the mineral in the DRC. Similarly, when environmental concerns over the use of lead in solder brought about a change in policy in Japan, tin (cassiterite) became the alternative component – contributing to a scramble for cassiterite in the DRC (see this video).

But few in Japan seem to be making the connection between these minerals and the situation in the DRC. Admittedly, the fact that the severely underpaid worker with the shovel digging for coltan (possibly under the barrel of a gun) is removed by some four or five stages (transporting, trading, refining and manufacturing) from the insertion of the tantalum capacitors into the Japanese mobile phones has something to do with this. Coltan changes hands many times before reaching the final consumer, and changes into an unrecognizable form hidden deep within the circuit boards of our electronic devices.

What all this means is that Japan makes for a very challenging environment to make traction in getting the issue of the DRC conflict on the agenda. With so little attention and awareness to begin with, there is not much of a base to build on. But at the same time, the rare metal connection should come in handy in some way in bridging the ‘it doesn’t affect me’ gap.

I have recently been involved in a number of events at Osaka University aimed at raising awareness that have left me with some optimism regarding what can be achieved in breaking the cycle of silence on this and other conflicts. My next post will cover some of these events.

Gorillas and guerillas

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy, conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage, natural resource exploitation, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 January, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.

 

In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.

 

But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.

 

Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?

 

While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.

 

Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.

 

Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:

 

The people:

Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)

Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)

Are different from me (black and poor)

Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)

Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them

Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them

 

On the other hand,

 

The animals:

Are cute

Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)

Are helpless

Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans

 

Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.

 

Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.

 

%d bloggers like this: