Oh dearie me: making a hash of conflict materials

So this fuss over conflict materials has finally hit The Telegraph.

As one would expect, after it\’s been filtered through the vaious NGOs, press releases and other wibbles, not a great deal of the accuracy is left.

Most mobile phone parts are made in Asia by American or European companies, but the minerals that go into the electronics, including tin, tantalum and tungsten, are sourced from all over the world.

OK, that part is true.

One of these regions is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, whose remote reaches are notorious for violence and human rights abuses. Its tin is used to solder electronics; tungsten goes into filaments and the component that helps mobile phones to vibrate; and tantalum holds electrical charge.

Global Witness, the international conflict observer, reports that rebels, militias and army units have hijacked the trade in mineral ores from the eastern Congo. The civilian population has been subject to massacres, forced labour and recruitment of child soldiers.

That\’s also true, but what we really want to know is to what extent is that true?

And it also points out that large international companies are complicit in the trade by buying the minerals, usually after they have been sent through smelters in Malaysia and Rwanda.

Err, no, that\’s not true. Or rather, it is of tin, but it certainly ain\’t of tantalum. There are no tantalum refiners in either Rwanda or Malaysia.

Companies from Hewlett-Packard to Intel will now be required to trace exactly where they got their minerals from and publish a detailed explanation if they are trading with suspect areas in the eastern Congo region.

It has provoked some consternation from the industry group, the Information Technology Industry Council.

The business group argues that while the aims are laudable, it would be complex to carry out. Wired magazine reports that Steve Jobs, the chief executives of Apple, shares this concern about the difficulty of tracing Congolese minerals.

In response to a concerned customer asking whether Apple, the technology company, has tried to stamp out use of the minerals in the iPhone, Jobs replies: “Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials.

“But honestly, there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”

And it is indeed a very complex problem. Although the tantalum part is the easiest to deal with. For processing Ta out of coltan is a right bugger. So much so that there\’s only a few companies around that can do it. A couple in Brazil, one in the US (yes, one), one in Germany, a couple in China, one in Kazakhstan…..you can see that if you wanted to control the Ta trade that\’s where you\’d do it. And the western companies there already refuse to purchase Congo columbo tantalite: and yes, the work has been done to tell where the mineral came from has been done and we can tell the source by looking at the residual elements in the ore.

However, once it\’s been made into Ta metal (we actually use the powdered metal to make the capacitors for the phones) you cannot tell where it has come from. So, if you were trying to check on the entire supply chain you\’ve got to get the Chinese and Kazakh producers signed up: and while I\’ve no doubt they will sign up the value of the paper upon which they do so, well, umm, your used loo roll has greater value.

The Nb, because it\’s processed at the same factories, has the same problems.

The gold and tin however, they\’re impossible to control for a different technological reason.

Getting them out of their ores is really rather simple: if you\’ve a bit of labour to make charcoal, a forest to make charcoal from and the knowledge of a bloom furnace then you can get the metal out of the ores. Tin making is, by definition, a Bronze Age technology. Once you\’ve got the metal, either Sn or Au, it can be fed into hte secondary market (ie, the scrap market) with no problems at all. Once there it cannot, under any circumstances at all, be traced.

Tungsten I know little about so sorry.

So the restrictions won\’t really work I don\’t think. And of course they won\’t really work anyway because of something else very important indeed:

Congo is not a major global producer of “The 3 Ts and Gold” that Enough has focused on. According to the USGS, Congo produces approximately 0.6% of the world’s tungsten, 3.8% of the world’s tin, 0.1% of the world’s niobium (columbium), 8.6% of the world’s tantalum, and 0.4% of the world’s gold. Thus, it is easy for the producers of electronics destined for the USA to obtain their “conflict minerals” from other sources. The conflict minerals will continue to flow out Congo at the same rate as they always have, only their destination may change, e.g. to China or India.

That last sentence: yes, minerals are fungible, just like money and oil are. Stop people, even if you\’re successful, in using said metals in electronics and they\’ll just make electronics from non-conflict sources and use the conflict minerals to make the other things that are made from said metals.

If some 4% of the world\’s tin cannot be used to make electronics then that 4% will be used to make ships\’ propellors, or \”no-spark\” tools for oil rigs, or coal scuttles. The tantalum will go into super-alloys, the gold into bridgework for the ageing population (yes, dentistry is still a major industrial user of gold).

So, here, from within the belly of the beast that is the world\’s trade in minor metals, is what I think the real effect of this recent addition to the law over conflict minerals will be.

The whole thing has been ginned up by the Enough Project. Part and parcel of what will now happen is that there will be auditing teams set up to try and trace where minerals come from (despite the above problems). Those auditing teams will, I would bet very good sums of money, be made up of those that the Enough Project approves of: and you don\’t have to be as cynical as I am to think that those they approve of will be those who are members of the Enough Project.

Yes, quite: the major effect will be a nice little earner for the friends and relatives of those who got the law passed.

They\’re already talking about only 1 cent on a phone giving a budget of $10 million a year. Quite a few buddies and lovers get to fly around the world being important for that sort of sum.

In short: it won\’t do anything because minerals are fungible, electronics will cost more and some right on policy wonks from DC get nice new jobs at our expense.

What was it Bismark said about sausage factories?

6 thoughts on “Oh dearie me: making a hash of conflict materials”

  1. Well actually. Your points are not without merit, but only partly so. Indeed, it will be impossible to stamp this out. But similar objections were raised against the conflict diamonds trade. Conflict diamonds never were stamped out – but the giant kimberley process did certainly make it more expensive, meaning that UNITA in Angola got paid less for their diamonds than in the days when de beers were simply hoovering them up wholesale from their offices across the border in Congo, without fear of annoying the NGOs. The conflict diamonds campaign really did contribute to UNITA’s eventual defeat, even though it wasnt the main factor (the biggest factor was, ultimately, a bunch of things going by the name of Girassol, Kuito, Palanca, Rosa and a few others.) So yes, you’ll never solve the problem. But no, you can make a difference.

  2. and the component that helps mobile phones to vibrate

    I always thought they were motors with an off-balance weight on the spindle. At least, that’s how Playstation rumblepacks work.

    Tim adds: Could well be but I wouldn’t be surprised if the weight was tungsten. Nice, dense (ie heavy for volume) and not too expensive metal.

  3. JuliaM
    err . . . cost to whom? Do tell. Just how does a $1 cost saving on not having to implement a tricky international scheme like this compare with, well, something like a poor garimpeiro and his family being burned in their huts for opposing something the mining interests want. And when you say “it seems not” worth the cost – do, pray, provide your grounds for saying that.

  4. On the grounds that I’d rather have that $1 in my pocket?

    And not see yet more quangos and fakecharities hectoring us while flying around the world and wining and dining politicians?

  5. I have seen it suggested that rolling out mobile phones in developing countries is one of the most effective aids to economic development (the example of fishermen finding oiut prices at different ports before sailing back to land springs to mnd). Adding a dollar to the cost of the low-end terminals which this sort of thing depends on is not insignificant…

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