There’s been growing concern in the US that certain minerals used in the manufacture of electronics are linked to criminal activity in eastern Congo. Now a provision of the new US financial regulation law calls for manufacturers to disclose where elements of their products come from. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with two experts on the matter – Mike Loch of Motorola, and Mike Davis with the international trade watchdog group Global Witness.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. You’ve probably heard of “blood diamonds.” Those are gems that are mined and sold for the profit of, say, warlords in West Africa. There are also “blood cell phones.” There’s been growing concern here in the US over certain minerals that are used in the manufacturing of electronics. Some of those minerals have been linked to criminal activity in eastern Congo. A provision of the financial regulation overhaul bill signed into law this week calls for electronics manufacturers to investigate and disclose where elements of their products are coming from. We have two experts on the phone with us to help shed some light on this murky matter. Mike Loch leads the supply chain corporate responsibility program for Motorola. He’s on the line with us from Butte, Montana. Thank you for joining us, Mike Loch.
MIKE LOCH: Thank you.
WERMAN: And Mike Davis is with the international trade watchdog group Global Witness. He’s on the phone with us from Paris, France. And thank you for being with us, Mike Davis. Mike Loch, let’s start with a close look at the Motorola cell phone, at any cell phone. And for a lot of us, it looks like a kind of magical streamlined piece of plastic, but tell us what minerals are inside it and what roles they play.
LOCH: The minerals are tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. The three T’s plus gold. The largest amount of material that would be in a piece of electronics is typically tin and that is what connects the different components within the printed circuit board and allows the equipment to function properly.
WERMAN: Now, where do these minerals originate from?
LOCH: They originate globally across the wide range of areas, for example, [SOUNDS LIKE] tantalum originates in Australia, Canada, Russia, China. There are many different sources of all these materials.
WERMAN: So is the concern in the financial regulation overhaul bill is about possible blood minerals in eastern Congo, why can’t Motorola just start sourcing minerals from, say, Brazil, Australia, and Canada?
LOCH: Well, actually there’s currently no means to reliably trace metals to the mine of origin or verify that mineral’s conflict free. The mine to the end user, there’s many steps and the commercial relationship that we have are with our first-tier supplier and then 4, 5, 6, 7 layers down, we may get to the mine or the traders. And then the other element that I think poses a concern and what we don’t want to do, or have this bill do, is lead to a de facto ban of minerals out of the DRC. There are hundreds of thousands of miners, millions of people that need artisanal mining out of the DRC for their livelihood.
WERMAN: Mike Davis with the trade watchdog group Global Witness, we heard a couple of arguments there from Mike Loch at Motorola. Let’s look at first the scrutiny and transparency that the legislation is calling for from Congress as part of the financial regulation overhaul bill. What do you say to that? Is scrutiny and transparency still not enough?
MIKE DAVIS: Well, I think scrutiny and transparency can go a long way to addressing this problem. We, of course, would like to see that [INDISCERNABLE] is backed up by some kind of incentives and enforcements. We think that the general thrust of the bill is the right one. It puts the onus on companies to explain whether or not they’re using materials that come from Congo or adjacent countries and then if they are, explaining what measures they’ve taken to make sure that those materials are not ones which are sourced in a way which benefits some of the, particularly horrendous arms groups, which are operating in the east of the Congo.
WERMAN: Mike Loch, do you think that’s possible? Can Motorola do that? I mean in some cases, Motorolo’s five steps away from the mine wherever it is.
LOCH: I’ll give you an analogy. If you want to stop the flow of money to these illegal arm groups, it’s like stopping the flow of water in a river. You need to build the dam all the way across. And Motorola has an obligation, the electronics industry has an obligation, along with multiple other industries, regional and international governmental entities. You know, stakeholders, NGOs, all need to part of the solution.
WERMAN: I mean it really sounds like the provision and the finance bill won’t have teeth unless these things are accomplished. Let’s start with just how you go about doing this research. I mean how do watchdogs and companies go about researching where these minerals come from, taking this forensic route if you will, so consumers know where the minerals in their electronics, what their origin is?
LOCH: We really have a two-pronged approach and the first one is looking at essentially from the mine to the processor. And then the other is from the smelter, the processor’s side, to the end user. And we’re looking at implementing a smelter validation scheme that allows us to audit the origins of minerals that are arriving at a smelter and look at and make sure that they are not coming from sources that support conflict. So we can then actually identity conflict-free smelters and then drive our supply chain to use only smelters that are conflict free.
WERMAN: Mike Davis, do you think consumers are conscientious enough to make a difference in all of this? I mean tell us how much a difference you think education and marketing has made in the conflict diamond issue, for example?
DAVIS: Yeah, I think it’s made a really substantial difference. I mean we do a lot of work on conflict diamonds. In the case of the electronic devices and other products that we’re talking about here, I think it would take on a slightly different form because these types of metals are used in so many things which we rely on, on an everyday basis. This law really helps but the hard work of actually getting it done still remains
WERMAN: We’ll leave it there. Mike Davis with Global Witness, the trade watchdog group that’s been following the issue of conflict minerals and Mike Loch, the director of supply chain corporate responsibility for Motorola. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
DAVIS: Thank you.
LOCH: Thank you.
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