The Blood in Your Mobile

Posted by in October's Magazine

It’s much easier to do administration in war than in peace,” ponders the smiling officer in the back of the army truck, a simple statement that belies the abject horror inherent in its truth. Conflict is profitable for some. This is the crux of Frank Poulson’s new documentary Blood in the Mobile. The film investigates the extraction of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s raw minerals for use inside our mobile phones and corporations behaviour in attaining them, but essentially it is about human greed and not only a lack of corporate but also personal responsibility. What will men do and allow to be done in the search for riches? It would seem almost anything. But what was personally most staggering was my lack of shock at the violence, intimidation and deliberate corporate ignorance that unfolds. We cynically accept that this is just what happens in today’s world. Our modern condition of moral fatigue is paying dividends for collusive corporations and governments which frighteningly now seem one and the same.
In the past fifteen years, five million people have died as a consequence of civil war in the DR Congo. It is also estimated that no less than 300,000 women have been raped. These atrocities have occurred in tandem with the rape of this country, and they continue. For years the UN have reported links between the trade in its natural resources and the war. These raw materials are now known as blood minerals.

Perhaps they exude less sparkle than diamonds but the misery brought by their pursuit is no less horrific. One of history’s greatest tortures is that it forever repeats itself; in the case of the DR Congo this is a cycle of horrific exploitation. A hundred years ago the country became a private slave colony where Belgium’s King Leopold II made his fortune by sapping it of its rubber. Today the stolen treasures are coltan and cassiterite, minerals used in the production of mobile phones. They fuel the communications industry while financing various armed groups in the DR Congo; it is the oxygen their conflict needs to continue burning.


Islanders as ants
Poulson’s journey begins in a Finland of glass and steel, the stark, serene Nokia headquarters. It ends in a wretched thrum of activity deep below the earth of the DR Congo, a true Conradian heart of darkness. Here, in the intense heat and blackness the unfortunate many use hands, picks, anything, to claw valuable minerals from the ground. Minerals that we hold to our ears each time we use a mobile phone. In his 1960 feature Naked Island, Director Kaneto Shindo showed islanders as ants enduring a daily struggle against unforgiving nature. Poulson shows his subterranean workers as even more unfortunate. They battle not only against faceless and uncaring natural conditions, but also against the man-made entity next to which they are equally insignificant. Nature’s omnipotence interchanges with Nokia’s.

Frank was in Edinburgh to attend two screenings of his film at the admirable Take One Action Film Festival. An event celebrating the people and films that are tackling poverty and injustice with an aim to change the world we live in. We met for coffee and it was soon evident that he shared these moral aspirations. “As a filmmaker I’m always looking for stories which will make third world issues relevant for people in the west. It seems that what is going on in Africa is very far away but also has very little to do with us.” What the film makes very evident is that conflict in the DR Congo has everything to do with us. We are the end users of the products of war. “It was important not to just make a film about something terrible happening in the world but also connect it to our world and our part of it.”

Conflict minerals
But what accountability lies with us? Frank agreed that, although there is an element of consumer responsibility, we can’t be expected to know the origin of all materials we buy. Our eyes wandered down to the coffee we were drinking and I couldn’t help but think of Marc Francis’ devastating documentary Black Gold (the same director’s When China Met Africa was shown by Take One Action this year). Who knows, perhaps we were hypocritically toasting Africa’s poverty while discussing its freedom. It is impossible not to be inadvertently complicit.

That is why as consumers we must be able to trust the corporations we deal with. Frank had reasons for choosing specifically to question Nokia over their behaviour in relation to blood minerals. “I took a personal approach saying I am the customer of Nokia and you are my phone company…as a consumer I have a right to know.” They are the world’s largest mobile phone producer and the market leader for corporate responsibility. Even so they made the director work for his film, it took over a year of persistence, a neck of brass and balls of steel to get his interviews. The most devastating exchange with one spokesperson is worded in such succinct and pedestrian fashion “On one hand …we have the race to get profit, and then on the other hand we have dying children in Africa.” It’s quite simply checkmate.

Whether corporations can be trusted to self-regulate is a no brainer. Corporate culture exists for the sole pursuit of profit. Responsibility is often viewed as a marketing tool, a brand-enforcing badge. Unless it is seen as a profitable endeavour then responsibility must be forced through legislation. In the US the Frank Dodd Act, signed by the President in July 2010, attempted to ensure that conflict minerals no longer make it into cell phones. It’s all about supply chain transparency and this visibility must trace back to the very origins of the raw materials.

“It can’t just be something happening in your headquarters or the first level of your supply chain…there’s no point if the rest is completely rotten.” This is where the true battle lies. A high level of responsibility is something Frank would like to see introduced in Europe and which he hopes to contribute towards “We have an idea that you can buy a DVD (of Blood in the Mobile) but if you pay a little extra there will also be a DVD sent to every member of the European Parliament.” His main aim for the documentary is to stop the money flow to the armed groups of the DR Congo, a flow which originates in the West.

“The only thing which is really bringing money into this game is the conflict minerals.” It must be made clear that the DR Congo have a mosaic of socio-political problems and ethnic division and these certainly did not originate with the extraction of blood minerals, nor will they simply disappear along with them. What is true however is that five million people have died in a war primarily financed by the electronics industry and in which we as consumers are complicit.

Amaranthine beauty
The absolute chasm between the first and third worlds stand out in the film. The West is viewed with a cold clinical lens; its danger is precise, surgical, premeditated. Africa is shown as a land of amaranthine beauty where spontaneous natural aggression is ever present. The contrast is mind-blowing, never more so than when Poulson cuts from the atrocity ravaged mines of Bisie to Nokia’s ice palace HQ. It’s astonishing to think that these two sites appear on the same planet and I suppose that’s what makes it so difficult to connect them, to understand that people just like us die in violence and weekly mine collapses so that we can send a text. Out of sight out of mind. So important then that documentaries such as this are not only making us aware but helping us to comprehend this appalling reality and our role in it.

Info: Blood in the Mobile is released on 21st October. This issue affects and involves us all – everyone owns phones and electronics – so, if you would like to know more take a look at these websites:

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