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.
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."
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.
"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."