Technology and Conflict Zones

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The American obsession with technology is often described as driving the U.S. economy. Certainly the tech boom of the 1990’s rippled across the economy until the bubble burst in 2000. By 2010 technology gadgets have acquired the allure of fashion objects. The high mark-up of high tech devices like cell phones and laptops, desktop computers, iPads and other baubles has come with considerable outsourcing of assembly jobs to lower wage manufacturing centers in Mexico, China, Taiwan and other locations. The fashion-ization of tech culture has also come with the sourcing of raw materials in conflict zones like Congo.

It was in reporting on the late President Mobutu Sese Seko of the nation formerly known as Zaire that I learned about Coltan and it’s impact on the lands of Sub-Saharan Africa. Coltan is a valuable ore which contains minerals used in the manufacture of tech devices like cell phones. Back in the 90’s while doing a story on the brutal conflict diamond trade in Zaire, a Lebanese diamond trader told me that diamonds were over and that Coltan mining and other tech-minerals were the future. I barely noted the comment at the time. A decade later Mobutu was dead and Coltan mining stories started regularly coming out of the nation now called Congo. Coltan’s impact on the environment and it’s enslavement of local populations is a direct result of the high demand for high tech goods. I often wonder where my Lebanese diamond trader is now. Perhaps he’s pocketing some piece of all my tech purchases over the past decade.

In a sense then maybe it’s something of a milestone and vindication for him that buried in the Federal Financial regulatory reform bill is a regulation requiring that companies disclose whether raw materials in their manufactured tech products come from conflict zones such as Congo’s rebel-held zones. The official title of the 2,300 page bill is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Perhaps in honor of my Lebanese pal they could have just called it the “Diamonds are NOT forever Act."