In purchasing cellphones, laptops and other assorted electronics, you likely play a role in ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This isn’t something you can easily avoid, but it is something a new organization at Concordia is trying to address, one signature at a time.
The Concordia Initiative for a Conflict-Free Campus was created by students Aidan Pine and Melissa Kabasele last October as a way of raising awareness about what they felt was a major problem receiving too little attention: the role that mining gold, tin, coltan, tantalum and tungsten have in financially supporting the groups behind the ongoing, devastating violence in the DRC since the Rwandan Genocide.
“The significance of these is that they’re found in every consumer electronic,” Pine said. “Tungsten is what makes your cell phone vibrate, tantalum holds a battery charge, tin is used in everything, gold is used in everything.”
Due to their wide use, Pine said electronics companies often just follow the supply chain, without necessarily tracing the minerals back to the source. “Probably the biggest problem is that there is not a single company that can claim to be conflict mineral free.”
The CICC has been circulating a petition to student and community groups since the fall which they hope is an important first step in pressuring companies to avoid using conflict minerals in their products. The petition essentially pushes Concordia to recognize the problem in the Congo, as well as their own indirect role in driving it forward through their large annual investments in electronics that probably contain those conflict minerals.
“Concordia university has 158 electronics products companies that they have annual contracts with, some of which are in the tune of a few million dollars,” Pine said, which he believes gives the University the ability to exert some pressure. This is why the petition also asks that they push this message to the companies they invest in, in the hopes that in the long-term these corporations will, in the interest of maintaining their consumer base, begin to trace their supply chains and seek conflict-free minerals for their production processes.
The group is planning on presenting this petition to the Board of Governors at the end of March in the hopes of getting their endorsement and having it included in the University’s Official Electronics Procurement Policy. In the mean time, they are continuing to collect signatures from other groups, most recently the Concordia Student Union at last week’s council meeting.
The petition has also already been signed by campus groups including Sustainable Concordia, the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program, as well as external organizations like the CommunautÃ© Congolaise de MontrÃ©al and youth organization Alliance de Jeunes Congolais.
“So far the student support has been very, very effective,” said CICC administrator Aaron Barcant. He noted that a January screening of conflict-mineral documentary Blood in the Mobile at Cinema Politica created a lot of “buzz.”
“We had a significant amount of people coming to volunteer,” he said. “So that was very supportive and influential on us and that inspired us to take further action.”
They will be trying to continue this buzz with a free panel discussion on March 22. The Concordia International Forum on Conflict Minerals will feature Blood in the Mobile director Frank Poulsen, as well as Canadian member of parliament and vocal supporter of the cause Paul Dewar, among others.
While they recognize that without any companies who guarantee the use of conflict-free minerals, the petition is non-binding in effect, the CICC sees it as a necessary short-term step in a long-term process.
“We send a message up the chain,” Barcant said. “It is our belief that once enough people at organizations and in communities start demanding this, just as it happened in the conflict with blood diamonds, a company will take the initiative and open their supply chain, make it transparent and start providing this service.”