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Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

Blood on our handhelds

Blood in the Mobile

Directed by Frank Piasecki Poulsen (2010)

93 mins

Distributed by Dogwoof Pictures – UK release: 21 October

Reviewed by Manny Thain

WORLDWIDE, EVERY other person has a mobile phone, statistically speaking. One in three of those phones is a Nokia. Each one contains tin (from cassiterite ores) and tantalum (from coltan). Much of this is mined in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, at least five million people have been killed and 300,000 women raped over 15 years of seemingly intractable civil war, and warlords control the mineral-rich land – the blood in the mobile.

Frank Piasecki Poulsen, the director and reporter of this remarkable documentary, traces the journey. He is quietly determined and begins at a mobile phone trade fair in Barcelona. For companies which deal with communication, Poulsen finds it almost impossible to find anyone who will talk to him. "We only have one number", says a representative from Nokia, a company which boasts of its social responsibility.

Poulsen goes from Barcelona to a United Nations (UN) base in Goma, DR Congo. This is where the UN has its highest concentration of troops anywhere in the world, although they rarely leave the towns and hardly ever get off the main roads. The expanses of forests are controlled by a dizzying array of heavily armed militias headed by local warlords or from neighbouring states, and rogue army units.

A UN press officer who is not permitted to speak on record about the mining operations describes the brutal, terrorising tactics of the militias, a stark warning to Poulsen to be extremely careful.

After meeting up with a 16-year-old miner called Chance (Luck, in French), Poulsen and a small team make their way to the mining area, Bisie. They pass people carrying 50kg sacks of minerals on their backs through the forest. Thirty tons a day are transported in this way, $70 million-worth of rocks a year. To get into the mining camp they have to pay a ‘tax’. People have to pay to get in and again to get out, so many are trapped because they cannot afford to leave.

Poulsen takes us through this sprawling tent city where 15-20,000 people survive in the mud and filth. Holes pepper the mountain where claustrophobic pits are dug in a haphazard fashion. One day the whole mountainside is likely to collapse, the consequences almost too horrific to contemplate. Because of the distances to travel to get to the cassiterite, Chance says that he would often stay underground for a week at a time. It is gruelling, hammering solid rock with cut-off sledge-hammers, jostling for position at the rock face. They earn $1 to $5 a day.

From central Africa, the minerals go to be smelted, mostly in east Asia. Once they are smelted it is impossible to trace where they have come from. Poulsen asks a Nokia representative about the possibility of publishing supply chain data. He is told that it is difficult to do. There are confidentiality issues, matters of sensitivity, the need to ensure innovations are not leaked to competitors. Poulsen says that, of course he agrees that there is a need for the company to defend its interests in order to make a profit. The Nokia rep enthusiastically concurs. So, Poulsen asks, what about the child labourers, the raped women, the millions dead? Is it OK to sacrifice them for profit?

In the 19th century, the so-called Congo Free State was founded and privately owned by king Leopold II of Belgium. He brutally suppressed and enslaved the indigenous peoples. He forced them to work on the rubber plantations to provide the raw materials for the explosion in demand for tyres for motorcars and other vehicles, and thousands of other products. Millions perished.

In today’s equally misnamed Democratic Republic, this task has been contracted out, effectively, to local warlords. Governments and CEOs of resource-hungry countries and corporations actively promote or, at best, wilfully ignore the resultant suffering of the working class and poor who provide their profits. In the case of the mining of cassiterite and coltan, every mobile phone and electronics company, without exception, is involved in this bloody business.

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