Thursday, 26 May 2016

Of mobile phones

Compared to many, I am not particularly attached to my mobile phone; but even though the one I use is old and battered, I know I would not want to be without it. For those far from home, it may be of even greater value: the only connection with family, friends and a life left behind.

So columbite-tantalite (coltan), even if we have never heard of it, is important to us all. Used in almost every electronic device, including the ubiquitous mobile phone it has known a huge surge in value in the relatively recent past.

About 80% of the world’s known reserves of coltan are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where its exploitation continues to fuel the war, one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War, having to date claimed more than 5 million lives. While most companies will of course avoid buying minerals directly from the warring factions and various rebel groups in DRC, it is amazing how many of the neighbouring countries, with scant known supplies of the mineral, have seen a huge surge in exports.

I can’t remember when the significance of conflict minerals, and particularly coltan was brought to my attention but it is perhaps since meeting refugees from the Congo that it has felt somehow closer to home and more uncomfortable. 

For many refugees from there, and other areas where conflict minerals fuel ongoing wars, there must be a bitter irony in a dependence on devices which contribute to the bitter suffering they have experienced firsthand: it is something of this duality which the following poem tries to express.

Technology's latest miracle
This lightweight

Too great a weight
For heavy hearts
And hurting hands

The bleak, scorched earth
Of burned and blackened land
Left scared and scarred by war

Its precious value
Bought and sold
In oft-spilled blood
And fierce flame

Yet as it burns
Still now it brings
The warm amber glow
Of home

And cradled
In scarred, scared hands
This deathline
A lifeline

As cracked and fractured voices
From a cracked and fractured land


With hopeful dreams
Of all that was and is and might just be
At home

ps: This Ted talk: also speaks powerfully on the subject.

pps: I don't usually use my blog to advertise products, especially ones I have never owned,.. but it was the use of conflict minerals in the mobile phone industry which, at least partly, inspired the Fairphone and while I'm sticking with my ten year old "dumbphone" for now, who knows, maybe one of these may be the future. 

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