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Falling Whistles – A sobering story about natural resources

Cell PhonesCell PhonesIn 2007,·Americans disposed of 140.3 million cell phones. According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition, one ton of cellphones (about 6000 units) contains about $15,000 in precious metals. For 2007 that would mean about $350 million in precious metals, discarded.

This past weekend, a sobering story was brought to my attention, regarding the resources that we take for granted every day. When I speak at schools, I often talk about natural resources and the catastrophic consequences that the extraction of those resources can have on the environment and the people who depend on it.  I have not spoken, at this point, about the very real conflict that these resources can generate, and the extent to which that conflict has killed.

The Falling Whistles story is a reference to the children involved in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Those too young to even carry a gun are sent to the front lines of conflict carrying only a whistle.

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to hear Sean Carasso, of the organization Falling Whistles, speak about his experience advocating for social change, and the mission that he has taken on since 2007, raising awareness about the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What war? you might ask. That is certainly a question that had come to my mind.  It is the deadliest war since the Holocaust, having killed over 6 million in the past decade, with people continuing to die every day. It is estimated that as many as half of these individuals are children. What does this have to do with talkin' trash? Congo is an area rich in natural resources. It was initially exploited for the slave trade under King Leopold II, then for rubber in the late 19th century (owing first to the popularity of the bicycle, then automobile), and now copper, tin, coltan (used in almost every electronic device), and industrial diamonds.  Warring parties in these countries exploit these deposits for export, and use the money to fund the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, there is currently little transparency in where electronics and diamonds are sourced, and the fact is that many of our cell phones, computers, and other electronics probably contain minerals from this region. Electronics have far reaching impact on the other side of the materials life cycle as well, when these materials are disposed of overseas, in unregulated recycling markets. (Check out this Greenpece segment on "Electronic Waste in Ghana" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr1zQrXM_7s).

So what do we do about it?

Falling Whistles spreads the news about the Congo by selling Whistles, and asks that you be a "whistle blower for peace", shedding light on the issue of the ongoing conflict and on our own unintentional role in it, through consumption of these highly contested resources. Check out their video "Peace is the New Frontier" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaz6yxgHg-4, and falling_whistlesfalling_whistlestheir website www.fallingwhistles.org for more information, and to become a whistleblower for peace.

Part of the problem with addressing the problems related to minerals fueling the conflict in Congo, is the fact that the supply chains are not transparent, that is to say, an electronics company buys the minerals, but does not mine them, so they do not necessarily know where those minerals were sourced. There is a movement underway to mandate that tech companies certify that their products contain no 'conflict minerals', similar to the campaign strategy of conflict free diamonds (http://www.conflictfreediamonds.org/), but currently such certifications do not exist. Because of this, it is up to us as consumers to demand accountability for the products we use.

http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/ provides ways to get in touch with companies, as well progress reports on the state of conflict free mineral supply chains. Check out their video for their ENOUGH campaign at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ycih_jMObQ

Thinking about all this, and sitting here typing it up on a computer that might well be part of the problem, it seems like almost too immense a challenge to overcome. Electronics are everywhere in our society, and we depend on them. For this reason, it is important that we bring light to the situation, and not shy away from it. It is important to recognize the full costs (and value) of the things that we use every day. In a world where so much of that information is obscured, the consumer must advocate for the knowledge they need to make good decisions.