What do you and Naomi Campbell have in common?

Unless you happen to have a supermodel body, or happen to have been forced to testify before The Hague, this is a difficult question to answer.

Last week former supermodel Naomi Campbell was finally compelled to give testimony in the war crimes trial against blood-stained, deposed dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor. According to witnesses, Campbell received a large “blood diamond” as a gift from the tyrant. Campbell had had a conversation with Taylor (what witness Mia Farrow referred to as “flirting”) in the home of Nelson Mandela shortly before receiving the gift. She claims that two men woke her in the night and presented her with the diamond. Before The Hague court she denied any knowledge of the conflict jewel’s origin.

It’s interesting that Campbell should be spotlighted for her ownership of a conflict mineral. The chances are pretty high that everyone reading this post right now, including this author, is in possession of minerals with a similar, bloody history as Campbell’s alleged blood diamond. If you have a cell phone, lap-top, i-pod, or any of a number of micro-circuit devices, then you are also in possession of a conflict mineral known as coltan.

Coltan is a component of resisters that are necessary for the functioning of all of our electrical devices. Indeed, more than just a mere shiny bauble like that received by Naomi Campbell, it could be said that our very civilization could not function without this crucial mineral. Yet coltan, like the infamous blood diamonds, have a similar history.

Most of our coltan is mined in West Africa. Those who actually do the digging, often children (see picture), live under slave conditions making less than subsistence wages. Money spent on coltan often goes to brutal, militant tribal leaders responsible for heinous acts of cruelty and inhumanity. Since electronics manufacturers pass on the costs of production to the consumer, that means our money is finding its way into the bloody purses of tyrants and child slavers.

Yet none of us will find ourselves before The Hague any time soon, I would suspect. Unlike blood diamonds, coltan and other conflict minerals do not make for good press. It’s easy to vilify the consumers of blood diamonds. Diamonds themselves have a romantic aura about them. They are shiny and valuable, and it’s easy to visualize evil, boney fingers lifting a blood diamond for examination under unscrupulous and greedy eyes. After all, who accepts such a gift from a known tyrant? Certainly no one like me, that’s for sure.

But what happens when we find that the integral, technological components that define modern life are similarly blood soaked? After all, I’m no Naomi Campbell (by any stretch of even the most disturbed imaginations). I don’t have a shiny trinket among countless other shiny trinkets (Campbell claims that she donated the diamond[s?] to a children’s program in South Africa). I’m just a working guy who needs to get to work even if the computer components in my car contain the fruits of child labor. I need access to the internet and software, even if the components of my computer are funding systematic rape on the Congo. I need to update my cell-phone when a sale becomes available because my outdated phone is no longer in production, even if that means funding arms used to destroy villages or impress children into an ad hoc military. This particular mineral is vital to my functioning as a post-modern individual.

Under such circumstances it’s easy to ignore the blood, the traces of which can be found on all of our hands. Whereas I can become indignant about the exchange of a blood diamond from an enamored tyrant to a beautiful model, I’m unlikely to become so emotionally responsive to a dull mineral in my own i-pod. There’s a certain distance between blood diamonds and my lived experience. I can avoid this luxury, can take action against those who would produce and consume this product because I do not see myself in their lovely faces. But necessary components that are an everyday reality in my life, what am I to do? How radical should I be in this regard? Should I refuse medical attention because the technology used on me might contain conflict coltan? Coltan is something that touches my life. Something I’m close to every day.

It’s also seemingly unstoppable. How can I, just a working man, with everyday concerns and responsibilities, contend with institutionalized slavery and brutality thousands of miles away? Even should I decide to go off the grid, eschew all forms of solid state circuitry in my life, such a decision would not make a dent in the exploitation in coltan mines. So it’s a no-win situation for me. Understanding such a calculus de-motivates me from getting involved. Much easier to say, ‘oh well,’ and move on with my life.

And here’s the elephant in the room. The fact is that I benefit from this exploitation. Every penny saved through child slavery and abusive labor structures makes the commodity cheaper for me. If everyone involved in the production process of making my cell phone made a living wage and received benefits, then I would be paying more for my cell phone. Since I benefit directly from this exploitation, I’m not likely to be motivated to end it.

Of course, the direct benefit may not be as clear as one would think. In fact, improving the conditions and wages of working people does not necessarily increase costs to the consumer; at least not by much. Research done on textile sweatshops shows that paying workers a living wage would add no more than twenty-five cents to the cost of, say, a shirt. In fact, valued workers are more productive workers. Increasing productivity in the coltan mines through worker investment, living wages and benefits would increase the supply of the mineral and thus decrease the costs.

Yeah, but the fact remains, I was able to get half-off my cell during up-grade time under the current system. If I work hard for change in the extraction process of electronics production, the best I can hope for is—half-off my next cell phone.

On the other hand, how much is eliminating child slavery worth to you? If you reduce moral action to mere dollars and cents, then you must be prepared to explain your budget priorities. Is a child in slavery worth, say, saving twenty-five dollars? Ten dollars? What are your acceptable savings in exchange for child slavery? If you feel uncomfortable about his question; if you don’t think it’s fair, or are having a hard time answering it, then it’s time to assess your priorities.

The bottom line is that children, who by the very values we cherish should be in school, or in playgrounds, are toiling and dying in mines. After reading this post and the associated links you are now aware that you are a part of this brutal and bloody system. If you have even a trace of humanity in you then every fiber of your ethical fabric tells you to do something about this travesty. Will you listen?

See the Agitation Links at the Journal of a Mad Sociologist within the next few days for resources through which to get involved in this very important matter.

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