The last thing you think about when you buy a new notebook, tablet or smartphone is what it’s made of.

I’m not talking about the chips, boards and components contained in the package, but rather the precious metals and minerals it took to manufacture those components, and more importantly, what the origin of those materials are. It’s not something you want to think about either. Because if you knew the answer, you’d in all likelihood shrug off your technological tendencies and move off-grid.

That’s pretty much what I felt like doing when earlier this week, Dr Carolyn Duran, director of Intel’s Conflict Minerals Program, shed some light on the work her company is doing in underdeveloped parts of the world – like Africa – to curb the human rights atrocities associated with the mining and gathering of some of those materials.

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Dr Carolyn Duran, director of Intel’s Conflict Minerals Program [Image: YouTube]

Four key minerals

Unbeknown to the majority of technology users, the mining of the four minerals – Tin, Tantulum, Tungsten and Gold – used in the manufacture of most microprocessors and other electronics is a business that in part, funds militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries, carrying out some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever seen. It’s akin to the horrors that took place in the illicit diamond mining industry in Sierra Leone during its civil war, as documented by the movie Blood Diamond.

Duran says when Intel started down this road in 2009, it was horrified to discover that many of the raw materials – most notably Tantulum – it was using to make the microprocessors powering desktops, notebooks, servers and tablets – were inadvertently fuelling and financing conflict in Africa.

Intel decided to take action and a leadership position in ethically sourced minerals, by putting pressure on the industry supplying it and by putting systems and processes in place to mange its supply chain. Before Intel could exercise any choice in the matter, she says it needed to put the mechanisms in place to ascertain the origin of the materials it was using. She explained that Intel chose to centre in on the smelters, because there are only 160 in the world and this was a perfect pinch-point in the supply chain. Each of those smelters has between eight and ten potential suppliers. And those suppliers get the ore from an even wider variety of sources – thousands of mines, with small families and communities doing the actual mining.

There are as many as 25 parties involved in the supply chain before the raw products reach the smelter. At the time, it meant there was literally no way of knowing where materials were coming from. In most cases the smelters themselves had no idea. Duran says Intel had first to convince the smelters that their activities and lack of knowledge around the origins of minerals was contributing towards serious human rights violations. Once that was done, it had to assist the smelters by putting a program in place that allowed them to trace the minerals’ origin and in some cases fund those activities, as smelting is a very low margin business.

The tracking process consists of ‘bagging and tagging’ of ore by a third-party, non–governmental body established by Intel. That allows for ethically sourced materials to be tracked along the supply chain. When it arrives at the smelter, the smelter turns the tags in. So it goes way beyond smelters claiming their materials are ethical in nature. The tags prove this.

Duran says the tags are necessary because the further up the supply chain these materials get, the more refined they are and the more difficult it is to look at the mineral composition as a tell-tale sign of origin. Today it’s simple. If the smelters don’t comply, they don’t get don’t get used.

In parallel to Intel’s work on systems, processes and supply chain, legislation was needed. Pressure placed on the US government by Intel and others has resulted in legislation being passed (in 2010) mandating the disclosure of minerals’ origin.

In August 2012 the guidelines around how to report and comply with that legislation came into play. And the first official filing of the required reports took place in May of this year. It’s not just the US that is adopting this stance. Duran says the EU in March proposed similar legislation.

Duran says that a key success factor in Intel going conflict free, was its public goal setting in this regard.

When it started the process in 2009 it committed to being 100% conflict-free for Tantalum by the end of 2012 (60% of the world’s Tantulum is used in the production of electronics) and being completely conflict-free for all four of the minerals it uses for the production of its consumer microprocessors.

Duran says today there’s small percentage of Intel’s products that can’t lay claim to this goal – most notably some server parts that make use of memory and EPROMS that potentially don’t comply. Its goal is for its entire product portfolio to be conflict-free be the end of the 2015. Duran says its well on track to achieve that goal.

What’s the ultimate result? Duran says – according to the ‘Enough Report’ – the legislation that was passed and efforts from the industry as a whole has resulted in a 55-75% reduction in militia funds from illicit mining of tin, tantalum and tungsten.

It’s a huge improvement. Let’s hope continued efforts manage to eradicate the balance. You can also read Intel’s White Paper on creating a conflict-free supply chain in the DRC here.

[Image – Intel IQ]
Brett is the big cheese at Hypertext Media. He's been covering the technology industry for so long, he's seen old technology be 'respun' as the next big thing one too many times. He started Hypertext in 2002 and quite frankly hasn't looked back (although he often longs for the days when a steady salary, sick days and leave were a given). Publications in his stable include htxt.africa; DailyFive (http://www.dailyfive.tv); Connect; Tarsus Channel and GirlGuides (http://www.girlguides.co.za). He also hosts the ZA Tech Show (http://www.zatech.co.za), does a monthly tech column for Sawubona and writes the odd gadget piece for a magazine here and there. Currently uses: 11-inch Macbook Air, iPhone 5, Blackberry Z10, iPad Mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Paperwhite, Marley TTR Headphones, Xbox360, PS3, Nintendo 3DS.