Much has been said about blood diamonds, but many people don’t realize that there are a number of other conflict resources that facilitate violence around the world. Products from lumber to your cell phone all play a part. Here we’ll take a look at these products, and discuss how you can help to reduce their impact.
So, you’ve taken every step to ensure that you’ve purchased a clean diamond, but did you know you’re probably putting it in a bloody setting? The mining of gold is responsible for both environmental and human rights atrocities. In a 2005 report, armed groups and international companies in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo were found to have caused ethnic slaughter, torture, and rape of indigenous people.
Often, the mining companies develop relationships with armed groups who will grant them access to new sites. One company, AngloGold Ashanti, refused to wait until peace agreements were signed in the Mongbwalu area of Congo to start mining, and had to interact with warlords to do their work. It’s estimated that between June 2002 and September 2004, up to 2,000 civilians have died as a result of fighting between armed groups just in Mongbwalu alone. What’s worse, the same people who are suffering are the ones who work in the mines, often forced into labor by combatant groups.
What can you do about it?
Unlike blood diamonds, there is currently no official process for finding "clean" gold. However, there are a few steps you can take.
- Instead of purchasing new gold, you can recycle old jewelry. Bring in old rings and other gold items and have them melted down to create a new piece.
- Support retailers that create recycled gold products.
- Buy vintage and antique jewelry.
- Only shop with retailers that support the Golden Rules. This includes Tiffany & Co., Brilliant Earth, and even Wal-Mart.
- Sign the No Dirty Gold Pledge.
Forests are perhaps one of the worst natural resources to be exploited, because they’re not just a source of revenue-they’re home. People live in them and depend on the vital resources forests produce. Furthermore, cutting down forests only serves to make global warming worse, as trees are excellent at absorbing CO2.
In 1992, the Khmer Rouge’s war against the Cambodian people was being funded by a secret timber trade by up to $20 million every month. Now, Burma’s corrupt military regime gains power and revenue from granting logging concessions. In Liberia, former president Charles Taylor used illegal logging earnings to finance a civil war that killed nearly 10% of Liberians. In fact, investigations revealed that the Liberian government facilitated the use of a timber company warehouse for storage of weapons as well as housing. Even when timber does not support conflict, illegal timber logging steals revenue from the countries and people that need it to survive.
What can you do about it?
The obvious question is, how can you make sure that your building materials and furniture in your home aren’t made of conflict timber? There’s not a lot you can do, but we’ve highlighted a couple steps that you as a consumer can take.
- Write to Congress. In 2003, Congress passed a law against conflict diamonds, and the Sierra Club is working to support a similar law for timber.
- When purchasing wood, ask about the origin of the products you’re buying.
In the past, oil has motivated violence in a number of situations, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Gulf wars. Perhaps the most high profile example of oil-fueled violence is Saddam Hussein, who used resources from oil to arm himself for attacks on Kuwait and his own people.
Even when oil companies attempt to provide aid to indigenous communities, it often ends in violence. Specifically, ChevronTexaco’s attempt to aid communities has left those who don’t get aid feeling underprivileged, and sparked conflict between the communities. Another failure is the practice of paying "ghost workers," who are really local troublemakers, a salary for doing nothing at all. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group says that it supports human rights, but they have allowed death and violence by supporting militarization and repressive government acts.
Even more painful is the knowledge that oil revenues could do much good if they stayed in the communities that actually own the oil. Every year in Angola, $1.7 billion in oil revenue goes missing, an amount that would be more than enough to solve major health problems like AIDS in the country. More recently, China has been linked to violence, selling arms to Khartoum while increasing Sudanese oil imports. These arms are used in the genocidal conflict going on in Darfur. Examples like these are plentiful, but the point is obvious: oil is perhaps one of the most violent products in the world.
What can you do about it?
Oil violence is an ongoing problem that has entangled most of the world. When faced with such a large problem, what can you do?
- One obvious way to help is to cut down on your personal fuel consumption. The more demand there is for oil, the worse violence is.
- Consider alternative fuels. Great strides have been made in recent years to make fuels like biodiesel, vegetable oil and electricity more viable.
- Contact oil companies and US officials. Let them know that you’re painfully aware of the problems oil consumption is causing, and that you want them to do something about it.
Chocolate may be sweet, but the process that brings it to you is not. In the Cote D’Ivoire, the government, along with rebels, has used cocoa to fund a civil war. In fact, President Laurent Gbagbo, combined with opposing rebels, has used more than $88 million to fight in the civil war from 2002-2003. There is fear that, given the resources, these groups would be free to create conflict once again.
More recently, Gambit Investment is facing allegations that it traded cocoa for military helicopters that are suspected to have been used in attacks on civilians. Between October 2002 and April 2003, government helicopter attacks killed 370 civilians.
What can you do about it?
- Support companies that offer transparency in their records. NGO groups have requested that cocoa exporters publish their levies and tax payments so that corruption will be easier to find.
- Buy fair trade chocolate. By purchasing this type of chocolate, you’ll not only ensure you’re helping to stop violence, you’ll also be supporting better labor conditions, human needs, and environmentally sustainable chocolate production.
Miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo work extremely hard in dangerous situations, just to get the cassiterite that goes in your cell phone, laptop, and other high tech devices. When they come out of the tiny holes in which they have to dig for the mineral, they’re greeted by soldiers at gunpoint that will take it. Other miners work on sites that are directly operated by the military and other armed groups. Even when they’re not working directly for these groups, they’re heavily taxed by them, or just robbed outright. Often, these mines collapse, leaving many miners and their rescuers dead.
The war over coltan has caused the death of more than 4 million people in central Africa, mostly civilians who have died from starvation, disease, or displacement. In addition to human life, the Eastern lowland gorilla is being driven to extinction through poaching and habitat loss tied to mineral mines.
Even worse, as phones become "greener," the demand for cassiterite, coltan, and other high-tech minerals like them has risen, and violence along with it. Although the amount of these minerals in each individual electronics device is small, it all adds up.
What you can do about it?
- Recycle your devices. By donating your cell phone or laptop to services that know how to properly disassemble them, you’ll help reduce mining for the minerals it contains.
- Buy used or refurbished. With technology growing at an ever-increasing rate, the turnover for devices is high enough that you can purchase a used or refurbished cell phone, laptop, or other device that is perfectly able to stand up to your demands.
- You can cut down on this turnover yourself by avoiding full upgrades as long as possible. This can be achieved with proper maintenance, repairs, and upgrading specific parts rather than your entire device.
- Buy for quality. If you’re going to buy a new device, make sure that you’re purchasing one that will be functional for years to come, rather than one that will be discarded within a few years or months.
More Actions You Can Take
In addition to specific product cautions, there are a few general actions you can take to help ensure that the products you buy aren’t responsible for violence in other parts of the world.
- Donate to Global Witness: This organization works to expose exploitation and end resource-linked conflict. In the past, they’ve helped to close down the Khmer Rouge and instigated the Kimberley Process. Currently, they’re the leader in research devoted to stopping resource violence.
- Purchase fair trade products: Although not directly linked to stopping resource violence, fair trade certifications can offer the assurance that the products you’re buying are made in a socially responsible way.
- Educate yourself: We’ve highlighted just a few of the products that have a socially negative impact on our world, but there are many more out there. Do some research to find out more about how you can be a socially responsible consumer.
- Invest responsibly: All of these human rights atrocities are enabled not just by consumers, but by investors who make these ventures possible in the first place. Be sure that any investments you make are good not just for your personal finance, but for the world at large as well.