Gold is now the most lucrative of conflict minerals. Illicit profits from tin, tungsten, and tantalum have dropped 65% since 2010, when the campaign to link minerals with violence began gaining ground.

A child is put to work at a militia-run mine in Watsa.

Workers rip the earth apart in search of gold at the Sufferance mine in the Ituri region. Much of Congo’s gold, more than $600 million worth a year, is smuggled across borders.

A boy waits his turn for spoonfuls of rice and beans in Pluto. In some areas of eastern Congo up to 40% of gold miners are children, often forcibly recruited by militias.

Already a soldier, a boy with an assault rifle pedals to base camp during fighting in the Ituri region in 2003. Photographer Marcus Bleasdale says that of all of his images from the Congo, this one has provoked the most response from the public.

2013-10-09

Co.Exist

These Eye-Popping Photos Show How They Get The Minerals That Power Your Gadgets

You're not going to feel great about your phone. But photographer Marcus Bleasdale's Price of Precious also captures the positive change happening to the industry.

In 2004, during a short lull in the bloodshed over control of Congo's lucrative tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold mines, photographer Marcus Bleasdale caught a lucky break. He had been speaking to a bush pilot about getting up close to some of the mines, and the pilot agreed to land near a militia-controlled operation he flew over often. A few days later, they landed on a small strip of land near the mine and were arrested by militia forces immediately.

Eventually, through a negotiation with local warlords, Bleasdale, who had been documenting war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1999, was able to stay for a couple of days and shoot. One of his images from that trip, a photograph of a child shoveling dirt barefoot in the mine, now graces a feature in the October 125th anniversary issue of National Geographic magazine. There are several others: Bleasdale along with Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times went back to the Eastern Congo earlier this year to tell the story of the country's mineral resource exploitation, and the demand for consumer electronics that drives it.

© Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic

In the issue, Bleasdale, who has won multiple human rights awards for his work in isolated, difficult-to-reach war zones, documents the supply-side economics behind our cell phones, laptops, cameras, and printers—the stories of child soldiers with Kalishnikovs, villagers fleeing from militia-fueled violence, cholera, and a rape epidemic. But he also talks of change.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a piece of legislation that mainly dealt with the financial system, but also required public companies to disclose where source materials came from—and, by extension, whether they aided armed groups in the DRC in controlling, exploiting, and abusing local populations.

Since, the number of "green," or militia-free mines in the DRC has grown, though they remain in the minority. Bleasdale, along with Gettleman, visited one such clean mine in Nyabibwe, which was sponsored by Phillips.

"The miners are getting paid there more money than miners get paid in the militia-run mines and the mines that are in rebel territory. And the community’s benefiting a lot more," Bleasdale tells Co.Exist. "The whole industry has to get to a mature point where there are many more mines that can be classified as green mines. And once that critical mass happens, then I really feel that the Congolese people will see the difference to the local economy. It's just getting to that tipping point."

© Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic

Bleasdale believes that green mines are a better alternative to pulling out of Eastern Congo altogether. The same year that Congress passed Dodd-Frank, the Congolese government banned mining in the east, which put miners out of work for months. The Enough Project, a human rights group focused on human slavery, wrote that living conditions in the area deteriorated under the ban, and proposed that government and industry engage with mining in the east in the interest of bettering conflict-free practices.

The ban eventually lifted in 2011, but it's unclear as to whether it helped the Congolese government reassert control over mining activities, or simply helped militias and rebel groups consolidate power over theirs. When the Eastern Congo produces 20% to 50% of the world's tantalum, it's unlikely industry will ignore the area's resources altogether.

Through initiatives of their own, some industry giants say that conflict-free technology can be possible. Intel, for example, is working on a conflict-free microprocessing chip, while Motorola Solutions, Intel, and HP helped launch a conflict-free smelter auditing program. Apple also sources its tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold from conflict-free smelters. Nintendo, however, remains far behind the rest of the industry.

These photos are from National Geographic's photo issue.

"What should be happening is what's happening with some of the technology companies—Intel is one, Motorola is another, Phillips. These guys are being really proactive in sponsoring the process of obtaining and maintaining mineral free mines," Bleasdale said.

Bleasdale, who quit an investment banking job nearly two decades ago after he heard colleagues discussing how a massacre in the Balkans might affect currency rates, says that over the past 14 years he's been covering the Congo, he's already seeing a marked difference.

"It's definitely changing—it's becoming better. It's by no means solved, and it will take many years to solve it," Bleasdale says. "But when there comes a time when most of the actors realize that they can profit much better from a peaceful situation in Congo, then and only then will we get that solution."

See more of Bleasdale's work here, or check out the charity he supports, which houses orphans of Congolese conflict in Bunia.

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6 Comments

  • KathleenDesMarteau12

    Thank you for publishing this article and these photos. It is hard to see the chasm between those on one end of the product supply chain and those on the consumer end, but important to be aware. We see the Wall Street power brokers arguing for greater dividends for shareholders of the big electronics firms. Can there not be more sharing of the wealth with these miners? I'd say they deserve it more.

  • KathleenDesMarteau12

    It took me a while to make the connection between the people pictured in the photos and the end product referenced in the headline. What a depressing chasm between those on one end of the product lifecycle and those on the other. It is important to see this, as hard as it is to do. The supply chain and the human beings who are essential to it are not always obvious when we purchase and use these modern gadgets. Thank you for running the piece.

  • NeoNazi Will Farrell

    This is the result of outsourcing jobs out of white counties so corporations can makes bigger profits. Up until the civil rights movement, coltan, gold, diamonds, tungsten were all mined in Canada, Australia and America. Greedy corporations weren't making enough since there are wage standards in white countries forced them to pay their employees a decent wage but out in black Africa they care not for human rights and the rights of the worker. They've been enslaving each other quite literally as long as they've existed and they still are enslaving each other, it's not Like the white devil made them enslave each other before and after the
    grand Atlantic slave trade. Slavery was first abolished in 1117 in Iceland and it spread across Europe from there, whites are the single least guilty party when it comes to blame for slavery. Saudi Arabia banned slavery in 1967, Mauritania in 2008(still hasn't caught on, blacks lack the morality to end slavery)

  • McDanel_1771

    Africa, South America, Cambodia, wherever there is a precious commodity in a third world or remote area, the mines look like this. I have no shock to express. In 1850, this is what gold mining looked like in California and Nevada. You can't end desire, so if you truly want to change these conditions, send them modern equipment.