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International Development

Documentary asks whether our mobile phones are contributing to war in Africa

Every day we all pick up our mobile phones to make calls, send text messages or to access the internet. However, have you ever thought about how our mobile phones are produced and where the components that make them up come from?

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the home for the mines that produce the minerals needed for the production of mobile phones.

This weekend I had the opportunity to explore this subject in more detail as I attended a special screening of the documentary Blood in the Mobile presented by Scotland’s global action cinema project, Take One Action.

After watching the documentary it seemed clear to me that it was discussing some very important issues that I was certain that the majority of the public will not have heard about. So, I thought I would take the chance to give an overview of what the documentary is about and the issues discussed within it.

The powerful documentary produced by journalist Frank Poulsen investigates the darker side of mobile phone production. It takes us on a journey round the globe to discover whether mobile phone manufacturers in the western world are contributing to the continuing war and bloodshed in Africa.   

Poulsen’s journey begins in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is quickly revealed that this area contains mines that extract the mineral coltan, which is a crucial element in the production of mobile phones.

Accompanied by his camera crew, Poulsen takes us to the heart of the mining industry in the country. We see that the mines are run by a series of armed gangs who ‘tax’ all aspects of the industry and are not afraid to use violence and intimidation to get what they want.

We also witness the stirring images of what life is actually like working inside these mines. After befriending a young boy named Chance who escaped from life in the mine, Poulsen is given the unique opportunity to take his camera into a fully functioning mineral mine. The pictures are harrowing with images of children as young as 10 years old crawling down mines that are over 100ft deep to spend days at a time cracking the walls in desperate search for this all important mineral.   

While the work is long and gruelling it is extremely lucrative for the gangs involved. The mineral is highly sought after in the western world for the production of mobile phones. It is so lucrative that the UN have repeatedly claimed that it is the money from the international mineral trade that allows the bloody civil war in the Congo that has caused the deaths of over 5 million people in the last 15 years to continue.

It is from here that Poulsen asks the important question that forms the heart of the documentary. He demands to know how much his own mobile phone manufacturer Nokia is paying the Democratic of Congo for the minerals, which is directly responsible for the funding of the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.   

What follows is Frank Poulson’s desperate search for answers. We follow him to Nokia’s HQ in Finland where he is met with an endless procession of receptionists, line managers and communication officers who are unable to even provide him with the name of the appropriate person in the corporate structure that he should be speaking to about this issue.

Eventually after much probing, Poulsen meets the company’s Director for Social Responsibility. Surely an organisation that has a person whose job it is to ensure that the company is giving back to society would be able to give an adequate answer as to what Nokia is doing about the purchase of conflict minerals from the Congo.

Unfortunately we feel Frank Poulson’s frustration as each question is met with a disappointing answer.

It is revealed that Nokia have known about the problem of conflict minerals for over ten years. However, after being pressed by Poulson as to what they have done about it, the answer is unsurprisingly very little. Rather than leading the campaign against the purchase of conflict minerals, instead Nokia argue that it is impossible to determine where minerals have come from once they have been smelted down.

While it is true that it is very difficult to trace the origin of a mineral once it is smelted down there is no reason why the mineral could not be tested before this process takes place. Such a procedure was proven to be possible by a leading institute in Germany.     

Another argument put forward by Nokia is that it is difficult for them to bring about change on their own and it requires help from the entire industry.

No one can deny that industry-wide agreement would make this process of change easier, but that is still no excuse for Nokia not to press for any action. Currently, there are a number of leading international NGOs and a strong campaign group in the United States that would be strong allies for Nokia in this fight to convince mobile phone companies to reveal where they receive their minerals from.

Mobile phone companies will need to consider whether their mobile phones are worth the cost of the suffering being endured in the Congo.

Also, as one of the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturers, Nokia can lead by example in taking that important first step in pressing for measures to ensure conflict minerals are not used in the production of their phones. 

Unfortunately, the documentary does not end with a satisfying conclusion. There seems to be no way to break the cycle between the insatiable demand that the western world has for mobile phones and the international mineral trade that funds such suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Frank Poulson’s documentary raises some fundamental questions about how large multi-national organisations cannot always be separated from the torment that is taking place many thousands of miles away. While many organisations can claim, and do in fact carry out many socially responsible activities the issue is are they going far enough and are they only pursuing changes that will not reduce their profits.

It seemed at the end of the documentary that Frank was very downhearted that he had not made more progress in trying to bring an end to the savagery he saw in the Congo. However, I believe that this documentary’s greatest contribution is  yet to come as it shines a light on this very important issue and will provoke a response from anyone who has the opportunity to see it. It was so effective that it encouraged me to write this blog about it.

I would highly recommend that anyone who is interested in international development or enjoys high calibre documentary film making finds the time to watch Blood in The Mobile. For more information on where you can watch the film and to find out more about the issues surrounding it you can visit their website at http://www.bloodinthemobile.org.   

The medium of film is a fantastic way to highlight such complex issues. I had the opportunity to watch the screening of this documentary thanks to the organisation called Take One Action. This is Scotland’s global action cinema project that seeks to inspire people into shared responses to issues of global concern. They have screenings throughout the year and a festival every March. To find out more about the organisation you can find them at http://www.takeoneaction.org.uk.

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