Ethically sourced iPhones are ruining the Congo. Go see the gorillas and help save it

The furry solution to a nation’s troubles.
The furry solution to a nation’s troubles.
Image: Reuters/James Akena
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Your iPhone is, first and foremost, a phone. It is also an Internet browser, a personal calendar, a memo pad, an MP3 player, a gaming console, a weather forecaster, and much more. But, on top of all that, your iPhone is a symbol—of affluence, of style, of comfort and convenience; a symbol of belonging to the world of Visa cards and Starbucks macchiatos and JetBlue tickets. It is a membership token for the First World.

Which is odd, considering how it’s made. Smartphone capacitors require tantalum, an element that is derived from a metal ore called coltan. And coltan is hard to come by. In fact, up to 30% of it is endemic to a single country: the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC), in Central Africa.

The United Nations estimates that up to three-quarters of coltan sourced from the DRC is mined and sold illegally—meaning outside the international regulatory framework intended to protect local miners from dangerous working conditions and general exploitation. Furthermore, these mine-and-trade operations are often spearheaded by local warlords, utilized as an extra stream of income (aside from your basic plundering and pillaging) to fund ongoing guerrilla campaigns against the central government in Kinshasa, and the neighboring governments of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

“The war economy has set the standard for working conditions in mines throughout the DRC,” writes Colin Kinniburgh for the spring 2014 edition of Dissent magazine. “Children as young as six years old still make up an estimated 40% of the mining workforce.”

By no means have companies and consumers in the global North ignored these troubling realities. As of this year, all 22 of the minerals used to power Apple products are guaranteed to be ethically sourced. Samsung and Nokia have similar policies in place. Fair-trade smartphones have become—in part thanks to effective Western activism—the industry standard.

Sounds great—right?

Not so much: A snippet of Dodd-Frank forbidding US companies from partnering with corrupt mining outfits, along with parallel public-relations campaigns condemning companies with stakes in conflict minerals, have let loose a mess of unintended consequences. Mining operations have withdrawn from the DRC, leaving miners unemployed, and the way cleared for expanded militia control over local mineral sources. (Which are still mined, sans regulation; their harvest sold on the black market.)

“The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped,” reports David Aronson in a column for The New York Times. “No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords—especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals.”

What the eastern Congo is left with is a win-win-lose. The First World wins—we get to keep its sleek and convenient smartphones and laptops, totally guilt-free. The warlords win—they continue to ravage the Congolese landscape of its resources without pesky meddling from Western governments or ethically minded companies. But the local Congolese lose—they are either forced to work for nothing (or close to nothing) in militia-controlled mines, where many will die; or starve, jobless and stateless.

In this seemingly hopeless state of affairs, there is a pinprick of light at the top of the mineshaft. Ecotourism, while decidedly less lucrative than mining, is an industrial alternative that stands to ethically develop the eastern Congo in both socially and ecologically responsible ways.

A new Netflix documentary, Virunga, makes the case. Executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Virunga follows a team of journalists and conservationists as they fight to save Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa, from encroaching European oil-drilling interests.

Like the eastern Congo, Virunga National Park is home to an incredibly rare, highly precious natural resource: the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Today, the species occupies only 13% of its historical range—it’s been strangled down to two meager populations resultant of decades of rampant poaching: one in the Virunga Mountains, the other in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda (not so aptly named, considering the prowess of local poachers). The majority of the total population, only 800, reside in Virunga National Park.

Soco, a British oil company featured in Virunga, recently agreed to pull out of the park and surrounding areas. According to a statement made jointly with the World Wildlife Fund in June, Soco agreed “to commit not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park and went further by adding that Soco commits not to conduct any operations in any other World Heritage site or adjacent buffer zones.” (The park was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979.)

“However, critics of the company have said that Soco has physically left the park because its exploratory work has been completed,” writes John Vidal in a story on Virunga for The Guardian. “And that its commitment could prove worthless if the Congolese government annulled the park’s status or declassified its boundaries and buffer zones.”

This raises an issue of utmost urgency for the region. Mineral resources are finite, but biodiversity can be self-sustaining if properly cared for and given the necessary space to prosper. When the coltan and oil inevitably run dry, and the gorillas are gone, what will the eastern Congo have left to attract foreign investment?

Park director Emmanuel de Merode thinks the time is ripe for places like Virunga National Park to make a comeback as a prime ecotourism destination for Europe and the global Francophonie.

In an interview with the International Business Times, de Merode explains that Rwanda, fifteen years ago, had a “very bad reputation for security” in an “absolutely tragic context”—the Hutu-Tutsi genocide of 1994. “Yet in 2010, he said, Rwanda’s tourism sector generated $430 million, most of it through visitors who came to see mountain gorillas,” IBT reports.

“And Rwanda doesn’t have 10% of what’s contained in Virunga National Park, in terms of different products that you can offer visitors,” de Merode said. “There’s no good reason, there’s no acceptable reason why Congo can’t do the same, why it can’t do better.”

For the DRC, “doing better” means a shift in national economic focus away from the export of finite minerals and toward the preservation of its animal residents. And considering how intricately tied up the mining industry is with local warlords, it might not be a bad idea to identify other, less easily corruptible sources of revenue.

“War has ruined everything,” laments Rodrigue Katembo, a Virunga park warden interviewed for the documentary, as he walks among the ruins of the once luxe Rwindi hotel. But he is not totally without hope. “When we started managing this sector in 2010, there was almost nothing because there were soldiers everywhere. However, now there are antelopes, warthogs, elephants, lions, and a significant number of hippos.”

“So there is hope,” he says. “Even the buffalo are coming back. We are sure that in the next five years the animal population will re-establish itself as before.” All that’s missing is the tourists.

Geopolitical forecasters predict that political conditions in the eastern Congo will eventually stabilize, just as they have in neighboring Rwanda (now known as “the Switzerland of Africa,” for it’s vibrant and growing banking sector, mountainous terrain, and quiet streets). Perhaps Katembe is right—in the next five years, it’s entirely conceivable that eastern Congo will be just as secure for Western ecotourists.

But how long can the gorillas wait? Or the Congolese people, for that matter? “It is thanks to the animals, especially these gorillas, that our forest continues to be protected,” says Andre Bauma, also interviewed for Virunga. Bauma is a caretaker at a gorilla orphanage in Rumangabo, the southern sector of the park. “Tourism brings in money to help us sustain,” he says. “There are many projects being implemented around the park because of our gorillas. Virunga National Park is really important because it contributes to the development of our country.”

He’s right—vibrant, attractive national parks lure not just deep-pocketed tourists, but the infrastructural build-up and foreign investment to accommodate them. That means international hotel and resort chains, which can offer fair and sustainable employment for thousands of locals.

A 2010 World Bank report estimates that, in Rwanda, gorilla tourism directly employs 33,800 people as of 2009, and indirect employment accounts for 74,300 jobs—4% of total employment nationwide. And this doesn’t just include hotel maids and concierges. African ecotourism outfits train local ranger and conservation teams, and offer employment opportunities for African veterinarians, zoologists, and biologists who might otherwise leave the country to find work.

“People are really optimistic that the park will make things better,” Bauma says. But the Congolese government has no impetus to prioritize ecotourism (and conservation) over mining if foreign demand remains weak. Money talks, and anyone who truly cares about development in the eastern Congo shouldn’t be satisfied with a fair-trade iPhone alone. Book a ticket for Virunga. See some gorillas. Show Kinshasa you care.