“We have to look more closely and ask questions.”

Ore miners in southern Congo © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

Around half of the world's cobalt comes from Congo © Harald Oppitz

In Congo, ores for our smartphones are mined under inhumane conditions. Amnesty International is now drawing attention to cobalt mining specifically. The Catholic relief organization missio has been criticizing the "blood minerals" for years.

Interviewer: missio has been drawing attention to the situation in the Congo for a long time. What do you know now specifically about the situation in the cobalt mines?

Jorg Nowak (Catholic relief organization missio): With the "Aktion Saubere Handys" missio has been criticizing these connections between the misery in the Congo and the cell phones in our western world for years already. I am also very grateful to Amnesty for drawing attention to these abuses, especially with regard to the cobalt mines. This is certainly a detail. We are talking about an estimated two million small-scale miners in the Congo who are struggling to survive and who somehow feed an estimated ten million people with the little money they have. I myself have been to the Congo several times. Project partners from missio have also accompanied me to these mines. There are actually three types of mines in total. First, mines that are in the hands of the rebels. Then there are so-called free mines, where people work under truly catastrophic conditions and struggle to survive. Very rare are still the clean and certified mines where minerals come from, such as for this Fairphone. And in the mines in the east of the Congo, where I was, people told me that they can mine there normally, but there is also child labor, there is sexual violence and assaults. These conditions – be it child labor, which Amnesty International points out, or sexual violence and assaults, accidents due to the catastrophic working conditions – these are untenable conditions. And one of the causes is certainly the entanglement with the great demand for cell phones.

Interviewer: "This is what we die for" – that's the name of the Amnesty report. So what are the people in the Congo dying for?? For the fact that we do not want to do without our fancy brand cell phones here?

Nowak: The phones are certainly wonderful in principle, the question is: what does the supply chain look like? Who profits and how unscrupulous or how ethically correct is the business done there. There one must imagine naturally, the Congo is one of the poorest countries of the world. The bloodiest conflict since World War II is also raging there – we often forget that when we turn our gaze to Syria and other countries. This difficult situation in Congo naturally means that the risk of exploitation and human rights violations is very, very high. This means that we have to look much more closely and ask questions: Where do our goods come from, whether it's our smartphones or, of course, we know about fair bananas, fair coffee and so on?. I think the ie of "clean phones" has actually been around for quite some time. There must finally be a change and the prere – also on the mobile phone manufacturers – must simply become stronger.

Interviewer: But there are just them, the clean cell phones. This means that we, as smartphone users, do not have to completely give up mobile phones with beautiful displays now?

Nowak: Yes, there is the so-called Fairphone. This has come from the Netherlands and it is impressive that a small team of initially six people said to themselves: We want to show that it is possible to make clean smartphones after all. I think it is really embarrassing for companies like Samsung, Apple, Sony and others, that it took such a small company to prove that. In the meantime, there is also a fair smartphone from Germany, the so-called Shiftphone. I think this is really the visible proof that it is possible. But the market share is still vanishingly small – if we imagine that 25 million smartphones are expected to be sold this year. And of course it will not be so easy for someone who has become accustomed to his iPhone and also likes to use this operating system to change. From therefore there is actually the recommendation to decide for such a clean Fairphone or Shiftphone and to increase at the same time again the prere on the portable radio industry. Therefore Missio appeals with the "Action Clean Mobile Phones" that the manufacturers finally guarantee that they do not make any direct or indirect business with the rebels. So far, 40.000 people supported this action. I think that is a considerable number. But relative to millions of cell phone users, it's still not enough. We simply have to hold smartphone manufacturers more accountable and make the voice from Congo even stronger.

Interviewer: What are you doing concretely in the country itself to help people in this really difficult situation??

Nowak: For missio, it started when our project partners asked us for support in peace and reconciliation work, in the construction of trauma centers, where hundreds of victims of the war found help. With donations from Germany we support this peace and reconciliation work, also this trauma work. And then we talked about it in great detail with the project partners as part of Aktion Schutzengel: What about the root causes of this conflict. I myself met women who told me: They were kidnapped by rebels. They had to work in the mines. You saw a helicopter in the rebel area to take the valuable minerals away. That's when it became clear to us: We also have to articulate a political demand so that one of these causes for this conflict is finally eradicated. This is a very important task in the context of this campaign work. We are of course supporting our project partners on the ground in peace and reconciliation work, but as long as the causes of this conflict are not ended, as long as there are not completely clean fair and ethical supply chains and trading conditions, this conflict will continue there. Therefore we are grateful for any support within the framework of Aktion Schutzengel.

The interview was conducted by Hilde Regeniter.

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Christina Cherry
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