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Conflict minerals from the Congo to your cellphone

October 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
National Geographic photographer Marcus Bleasdale finds beauty in trauma. His work in the Congo is featured in the magazine’s 125th anniversary issue. “The Price of Precious” documents child labor in camps that extract not blood diamonds, but tin, tungsten and tantalum--minerals used in electronic products.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The October issue of National Geographic features the power of photography and we’re fortunate to be joined by one of the photographers from National Geographic, Marcus Bleasdale.

Your work accompanies a piece called “The Price of Precious” and you’re talking about conflict minerals in the Congo but we’re not just talking about blood diamonds anymore, that’s something that a lot of people were familiar with a decade ago, what kind of minerals?

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  It’s minerals that we use in our electronics products so it’s tin, tungsten, tantalum, things that make our batteries function more efficiently, things that make our cell phones buzz silently, things that we use for solder to keep these electronic products together and working.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Help draw that connection, how does my purchase of an electronic product end up making its way to somebody that’s in one of these mines, pulling this stuff out?

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  We’ll do it the other way around, so in the mine they extract tin, tungsten, tantalum, that product then is exported illegally most of the time from Congo to its neighboring countries, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi. And from there it makes its way to the East African coast line where it’s shipped to Asia most of the time to go to production companies; smelters, which will then take that raw material and make it into a more pure form of its mineral. That mineral is then used in the electronic products that are created in Asia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How is it that… by reading this piece, I learn that the Congo is actually one of the most mineral rich countries on the planet, and yet at the same time, it is one of the poorest places on the planet. If they have these resources, what’s been keeping them from exercising that sort of economic independence?

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  The problem is that there is no control, first of all within an environment like that, there’s bad governance. The government there is not really in control of the region where the minerals are sourced. And if they are in control it’s a very military led control. Some of those military leaders are maybe not as scrupulous as they should be and they’re extracting a lot of those minerals for their own personal profit. And that’s been happening quite regularly within the Congolese army. On top of that you have a huge collection of militia, rebel groups that are working and fighting in this region….. they use these natural resources to fund their military campaigns. They try to take over the mines to extract the minerals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the things that is very striking about your photos is how many of these mines are staffed by children. …is there any improvement

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  I have seen some small improvements. I’ve been working in Congo since the late 1990s and when I was in these mines in 2003, 2004 there were certainly a lot more children in them than I saw recently, but that’s not to say that it’s not a problem anymore, it is a massive problem, there are still lots and lots of children working in the mines, being forced to work in these environments by military. And also sometimes when the fighting starts again, they leave the mines and they’re forced to pick up a Kalashnikov and they’re forced to fight for the militia they are working for within the mines.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This might seem like a naive question but is there anything that can be done about it? How can an American consumer affect what’s happening to a child in a mine in the Congo?

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  It’s a really good question because that’s where the solution lies, it lies with the consumer. The Dodd-Frank act was passed in 2010 and that made every American publically listed company responsible for reporting if they were receiving any minerals from the Congo or the surrounding area and so they are almost being held to account although some of them are working better than others. Intel, Motorola, Philips are doing a fantastic job on the ground, some of them are funding these mines to make them conflict free. Other electronic products companies are not doing so well. And so they need a push and that push has to come from us the consumer they can send messages to the organizations that are manufacturing these products to tell them we’re watching. We’ve seen what you’re doing; we’ve seen that you’re not maybe behaving in a way that you should be behaving,  or responding as quickly as you should be responding to the Dodd-Franck act.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Marcus Bleasdale, thanks so much for your time.

MARCUS BLEASDALE:  Thank you very much indeed. 

The images in the slideshow are from the October 125th anniversary issue of National Geographic magazine. See more at National Geographic
© Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic.