Miners in the heart of Africa toil in terrible conditions to extract rare minerals that power your iPhone

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Scraping through shovels-full of silt for the precious mineral with their bare hands, miners use these primitive methods to harvest coltan – the magical conductor that powers your iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or other smartphones.

Covered head-to-foot in the ore-laden mud, hundreds of workers toil for 12 hours a day – in scenes reminiscent of a 19th century gold-rush.

Wielding picks and shovels legions of strong men delve deep into the mountainside to retrieve the precious natural deposit, which enables our high-tech mobile world of emails, social media and the internet.

Loaded into plastic-lined rice sacks miners carry the coltan ore on their shoulders and heads to a primitive sluice where the rock and sand is passed through gallons of water. Panned and filtered by hand the mineral sinks to the bottom as the waste washes away.

The contrast between the 19th cenbtury method in which coltan is mined and the ultra-modern electronic world that mineral-fuelled devices have created is stark.

This dispatch, from the coal-face of the Luwow mine, in the far reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is the latest in a series of MailOnline reports about the unique challenges faced by this troubled nation.

‘The materials that enable your smartphone to work come from our mine,’ Jotham Uwemeye, Secretary General of the Cooperamma miners’ organisation, told MailOnline.

When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge – crucial for the miniature circuit boards that power our smartphones, laptop computers, pagers and many other high-tech devices.

This mine, created by hacking away at the top of a mountain in the heart of Africa, is one of the few places in the world where this rare and much-sort-after mineral can be found.

Once separated the coltan is bagged and carried by foot or by motorcycle taxi down the crumbling and broken bare earth road to the dust-blown centre of Rubaya, one of a number of country towns at the heart of the DRC’s mineral trade.

After their haul is weighed and classified, miners are paid $5 (£3.35) a day for the back-breaking work to dig out the precious mineral that powers our $500 (£335) smartphones.

But with a minimum wage set at $3 (£2.00) a day in the DRC the 1,400-strong work force at Luwow are prepared to endure the gruelling and sometimes dangerous conditions.

Manufacturers Apple, who make iPhones, and Samsung Electronics, who make the Galaxy, admit they use coltan mined in the DRC to make the smartphones that fuel our 24-7 lifestyle.

And Apple says it will continue to do so.

‘Apple remains committed to driving economic development and creating opportunities to source conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries,’ Apple told the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in February this year (2015).

Apple says its suppliers must adhere to its code that; ‘every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect’.

Samsung says it ‘recognises the seriousness of human rights violations and environmental pollution problems of mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo’.

But at the Luwow mine safety procedures are non-existent. A foreman stands over the hundreds of miners urging them to work harder and faster. Accidents are common at DRC mines with seven workers killed at a small coltan excavation site last month when the walls of a poorly-supported tunnel collapsed.

Children as young as 10 can be found working at mines across the DRC although none were present at Luwow when MailOnline visited.

First discovered by Belgian prospectors almost a century ago this mine and dozens of others like it in the DRC’s mineral-rich eastern regions, have been exploited by colonialists, dictators and war lords.

The payloads they release – uranium, gold, cassiterite (used to make tin) and now coltan – have fuelled huge advances in the modern world, including the atomic bombs, dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US forces in World War II.

Uranium extracted from a mine at Shinkolobwe was used to create the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and much of the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

The primitive Belgian colonial-administered excavation site, located in DRC’s southern province of Katanga, continued to supply uranium for US nuclear weapons until 1960.

Ownership of many of the country’s mines and profits made from them have funded the war that have blighted region for over 20 years.

The CNDP militia have used revenue from the sale of coltan at the Luwow mine to buy weapons and ammunition in their armed struggle against the DRC national army.

A damning United Nations’ report in 2001, on the ‘Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources’, blamed the sale of coltan and other precious minerals to multi-national companies as the ‘engine of conflict in the DRC’.

For many years the Luwow mine was controlled by a Rwandan-backed militia group, known as CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People). The armed group had helped popular leader Laurent Kabila overthrow hated dictator Mobutu Sese Seko 1997 but refused to relinquish control in eastern DRC. The CNDP has been accused of causing huge humanitarian suffering in what became known as the Second Congo War of 2006-2008.

Break-away elements from the militia went on to form the M23 rebel group which brought havoc to eastern DRC in 2012, humiliating the national army and UN peacekeeping forces, and taking control of the city of Goma.

At least 800,000 people were forced from their homes and atrocities against civilians were widely reported, before they gave up their arms.

Minerals extracted from the Luwow mine were sold in Rwanda helping the tiny Great Lakes nation to claim to be the world’s largest coltan exporter even though the country has no ore deposits.

However a US law, the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, has led to a clampdown in the use of so-called ‘conflict minerals’, requiring western firms to determine the origin of suspicious resources used, such as coltan.

The Luwow is among the two-thirds of DRC mines, which had produced so called ‘conflict minerals’, but which are now no longer run by warlords.

‘Every kilo extracted from the mine is given the Luwow ticket to prove it has been taken from a non-conflict mine,’ Bernard Ndajisara, Cooperamma transparency agent, told MailOnline.

The Luwow mine was controlled by a rebel militia fighting government forces and using profits to fund its war. The mine is now a workers’ cooperative, who sell their mineral to a merchant to export overseas.

‘Each bag has the code PB164 stamped on it when it arrives at market in Goma,’ Mr Ndajisara added.

M23 leader, General Bosco Ntaganda – known as ‘The Terminator’, is currently standing trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Apple say they are aware of the harm that conflict minerals have caused in the DRC and are ‘dedicated to using only conflict-free minerals in our products’.

An Apple spokeswoman added: ‘The simplest path to calling Apple products conflict-free would be to redirect our demand through a small subset of smelters that are either conflict-free verified, or aren’t sourcing from Central Africa.

‘But this approach would do little to influence the situation on the ground, something we care deeply about.

‘That’s why we have been working to expand the number of verified sources in this region, so that more people can earn a good living, in better conditions.’

Samsung Electronics says it supports the ban on conflict minerals.

A spokeswoman for Samsung Electronics added: ‘As a global manufacturer of consumer electronics, we understand the moral and ethical responsibility we have to our consumers and broader society.

‘We remain committed to proactively participating in conversations and actions around the world to ban the use of conflict minerals and ensure responsibly source, conflict-free products.’

A United Nations’ (UN) helicopter gunship flew past the mountain-top mine during the MailOnline visit.

Three bases, which are less than 50km from the mine, which armed groups had been operating to terrorise the local population were destroyed in the UN military assault, reports the following day revealed.

Promoting sustainable economic growth, creating jobs, promoting peace and establishing the rule of law are among the 17 sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations last month.

The ambitious new set of aims hopes to end poverty, hunger and advance equality and protect the environment over the next 15 years.

Source: The DailyMail

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