Fair Trade Coffee & Conflict-Free Electronics?

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jan 10, 2012 in BLOG, Guest Contributer |
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By: Kirk Lyman-Barner
Special Guest Contributer

I’m a big fan of a good cup of coffee. And since moving to Americus, a “good” cup of coffee has come to mean more than just the way it smells as it begins brewing at 6:30 in the morning, more than the way it tastes or the revival it provides on a long afternoon.   The folks at Café Campesino and Cooperative Coffees are good friends of mine and they’ve taken great care to educate me about what goes into that little one-pound bag of coffee I buy each week without even batting an eye.  I now know exactly what goes into that bag of beans – and the role fair trade plays in it.  Small farmers who were once exploited by large multi-national corporations have, through fair trade organizations, the capacity to produce coffee at a legitimate profit for themselves and their families.  That is what makes  a cup of coffee “good.”

I recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I learned of another form of labor exploitation and I immediately saw the connection between folks like the coffee farmers and the suffering Congolese.  So grab a cup of some “good” coffee and let me tell you about it.

I work for The Fuller Center for Housing.  We build houses and do housing repairs with people in need all over the world.  During the week of August 14-21, I led a Fuller Center Global Builders team to visit our work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), to the site of the first work done internationally by Millard and Linda Fuller (founders of Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing).  It was in June of 1968 that Millard and Linda moved to Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia to work alongside Clarence Jordan in launching Partnership Housing and the concept of a revolving loan fund they called “The Fund for Humanity.”  Wanting to see if a Fund for Humanity could be successful in Africa, the Fullers began working in Mbandaka, DRC, on donated land which separated the Africans and whites in colonial days. It was called Bokotola which meant “man who does not care for others.”  There they built the first 100 houses, which still stand today as tribute to their vision.

As I prepared to lead the team back to this original site in the Congo, Fuller Center President David Snell recommended a book to me called King Leopold’s Ghost-A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.  I learned that in 1885, The Congo Free State, roughly 2 million square kilometers, was given to Belgian King Leopold II (1835-1909) by colonial partition of the African continent by the 19th century imperialist states, including the United States of America.

In 1887, the inflatable bicycle tube was invented, increasing the demand for rubber, a valuable natural resource plentiful in the Congo.  Soon, the mass production of automobiles with rubber tires would drive demand even higher. Without regard for human rights, King Leopold took advantage of this new market for rubber and the Congolese people became slaves in their own country.

The Congolese rubber tappers and porters were mercilessly exploited and driven to death.  Leopold’s agents held the wives and children of these men hostage until they returned with their rubber quota.  Those who refused or failed to supply enough rubber had their hands cut off, villages burned, and children murdered.

No one knows the exact extent of the genocide under Leopold’s reign.  Some estimate that the Congolese population was reduced by half.  Other estimates suggest that between 8 million and 10 million people were killed or died of disease, starvation and malnutrition.

Leopold’s bloody reign came to an end in 1909, but his tactics are still being used against the Congolese people even as you’re reading this – not for the acquisition of rubber, but for other of the country’s natural resources.

I’ve been trying to keep up on the news out of the Congo at the following website www.allAfrica.com  Sadly; I discovered that King Leopold’s tactics are still being used by people exploiting the Congo.  The intimidation, rapes, beatings and murders continue by companies exploiting resources from the Congo.  In this article, Greenpeace International reported the story of a village that was attacked by Congolese military and police on behalf of a logging company, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, that was trying to intimidate the Yalisika community in Bosanga.  The grievances of the community was the failure of the logging company to build a promised school and health facility which were promised in a “social responsibility agreement” contract with traditional chiefs in 2005 in exchange for the right to log in the community.

Perhaps the story of one mineral coltan is illustrative of the source of resource based aggressions against the Congolese.

Columbite-tantalite (coltan) is a black tar-like mineral found in the Congo.  As much as 80 percent of the world’s coltan is in the Congo.  When refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that holds a high electric charge.  Coltan is often mined illegally and the revenues from smuggling fund the military occupation of the Congo prolonging the conflict.  Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are among the leading exporters of coltan to the Chinese electronics industry.  Almost no coltan is found in either Rwanda or Burundi.

The Second Congo War, also known as the Coltan War, began in 1998 and officially ended in July 2003, but the war and its aftermath (largely driven by the trade in conflict minerals) have resulted in the deaths of between 5 and 6 million people, making it the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II.

The computer I used to write this article was produced with coltan. So was the camera I used to take the pictures while I was in the Congo.  If you are reading this blog you are most likely using a device that was produced with coltan.  I’m blogging on a computer produced through exploitation. It’s this appetite for laptop computers, cell phones, video games, and a host of other things which suppresses our interest in how they are made and who makes them (much like our desire for cheap coffee).   Even if advances in science produce a replacement for coltan, as has been done with the invention of synthetic rubber, there are plenty of other rare-earth minerals in the Congo that would likely continue the mistreatment of the Congolese.

A recent May 2011 study, the New York Times reported that one woman is raped every minute in the Congo. Accurate statistics are hard to gather in the jungle villages and the attacks are underreported because of the stigma attached to rape victims.  Survivors who return to their families are often rejected as damaged property.  An estimated 1.8 million Congolese women have been raped making it one of the worst crimes against humanity on the planet.

Why have we not heard of the Coltan War?  I did some research and found no effort by any in the computer industry to raise awareness of this war, the violence, the child slavery or the rapes that are all designed to bring us low-cost electronics.   The Carter Center’s website details their work to monitor the November elections in the Congo and while the history of violence is mentioned, specifics about the conflicts over coltan are not reported.  The problem is huge and until we name it, we will not be able to solve it: Our demand for cheap electronics is a cause of the problem.

“Fair trade coffee” has a nice ring to it.  Bloggers and other activists are calling for another three words to be woven together in our consciousness: Conflict-Free Electronics.  Thanks to folks like Café Campesino and Cooperative Coffees, you can enjoy a cup of coffee with a conscience, assured that no one is being exploited so you can have your morning joe.  Now it is up to you and I to raise awareness and bring the concept of “conflict-free electronics” into the discussion.

Click here for more information on the Congo from the Global Ministries office of the Disciples of Christ and The United Church of Christ.

Click here for more resources and reports click her for the website of conflict minerals .org.

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