Fostering awareness of the origins of minerals – by Terry Pender (Waterloo Record – July 29, 2013)

WATERLOO REGION — Kirsten Van Houten is helping people make the links between their smartphones and the brutal war ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Van Houten is collecting signatures in support of the Just Minerals Campaign — a national effort to raise awareness of minerals that are mined in Africa and used in cellphones and computers. So far, she has collected more than 100 signatures.

The minerals are tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. Van Houten and the Just Minerals Campaign are concerned about the supply chains for tech companies that start in Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and the Congo.

The Just Minerals Campaign is in support of New Democratic MP Paul Dewar’s private member’s bill called the Conflict Minerals Act. It is modelled on U.S. legislation that will require all companies to publicly report on the source of minerals used their products.

“We would like to indicate there is support in this community,” Van Houten said. “We would also like to create consumer awareness and create demand for a fair trade cellphone.” The young woman wrote her master’s thesis on the demand for small guns and light weapons in the Congo. She worked with Congolese refugees in Pretoria, South Africa. She also worked in northern Uganda. Van Houten plans to start her PhD at the University of Ottawa this fall and continue her research on the Congo.

“Rebel groups are taking control of mines throughout the eastern Congo and selling the minerals they extract to Canadian, American and Chinese companies to be used in electronics and jewelry,” Van Houten said. “They are using the profits from that to purchase weapons.”

The war in the Congo has killed an estimated 5.4 million people since 1998. The single, largest source of tantalum is in the eastern Congo, where most of the fighting occurs.

Van Houten said both Uganda and Rwanda access rare minerals mined illegally in the Congo through rebel groups.

Smartphones, computers, anything that uses a circuit board, uses coltan, which is made from tantalum. Coltan is used to make capacitors.

“That’s where it really becomes relevant to Kitchener-Waterloo because this is where BlackBerry is based,” Van Houten said.

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