‘Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a
metallic ore from which is extracted the elements niobium and
tantalum. Tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics
products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers. Export of
coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European
and American markets has been cited by experts as helping to finance
the present-day conflict in the Congo, with one aid agency asserting
that “much of the finance sustaining the civil wars in Africa,
especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is directly
connected to Coltan profits.”’



Inside Africa’s PlayStation War
BY John Lasker / 08 July 2008

In the rugged volcanic mountains of the Congo the conflict known as
Africa’s World War continues to smolder after ten grueling years. The
conflict earned its name because at the height of the war eight
African nations and over 25 militias were in the combatant mix. But
more recently the conflict was given another name: The PlayStation
War. The name came about because of a black metallic ore called
coltan. Extensive evidence shows that during the war hundreds of
millions of dollars worth of coltan was stolen from the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC). The UN and several NGOs claim some of the
most active thieves were the Rwandan military, several militias
supported by the Rwandan government, and also a number of western-
based mining companies, metal brokers, and metal processors that had
allegedly partnered with these Rwandan factions.

After it is refined, coltan becomes a bluish-gray powder called
tantalum, which is defined as a transition metal. For the most part,
tantalum has one significant use: to satisfy the West’s insatiable
appetite for personal technology. Tantalum is used to make cell
phones, laptops and other electronics made, for example, by SONY, a
multi-billion dollar multinational based in Japan that manufactures
the iconic PlayStation, a video game console. And while allegations of
plundering coltan from a nation in desperate need of revenue seem bad
enough, the UN also discovered that Rwandan troops and rebels were
using prisoners-of-war and children to mine for the “black gold.”

“Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in
Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms,”
said British politician Oona King, who was a Member of Parliament from
1997 to 2005. Most of the fighting from Africa’s World War ended in
2003 following a peace accord. But reports of troop tension,
instability and rampant sexual violence against women continue to
emerge from where the war was at its most intense: the eastern portion
of the DRC, near the city of Goma and in the DRC province of North
Kivu. This is a region where millions of Congolese live among active
volcanoes and endangered Mountain Gorillas.

But even if many have put down their guns, a London-based non-
government office called Rights and Accountability in Development
(RAID) continues to fight its own battle against scores of Western-
based mining companies that continued to work in the DRC, or purchase
minerals and metals allegedly stolen from the DRC, as the war raged
on. These companies, such as Eagle Wings Resources International of
Ohio, Cabot Corporation of Boston, Mass., and Chemie Pharmacie Holland
of the Netherlands, were charged with having stolen millions of
dollars worth of resources out of the DRC, or made millions processing
stolen resources from the DRC, namely coltan.

When the war started in 1998, the UN and others believed that one area
of the conflict was the product of tribal and ethnic rivalries. The
Rwandan government, for instance, told the world they invaded the DRC,
their neighbor to the West, to go after those who committed atrocities
during the 1994 genocide that killed over 800,000 people. Yet,
according to the UN, the Rwandans were shedding blood for something
far cheaper; they were shooting it out for the mines that pockmarked
the volcanic mountains of DRC’s eastern regions. These mines contained
deposits of cobalt, uranium, gold and, of course, coltan.

A UN Panel of Experts investigation would expose the resource war in
2001, releasing several reports entitled “The Illegal Exploitation of
Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the DRC”. The reports
made disturbing charges against scores of multinational mining
companies, like Eagle Wings Resources International and Chemie
Pharmacie Holland. The UN alleged the mining companies directly and
indirectly fueled the war, paralyzing the DRC government, and using
the conflict to keep the coltan flowing cheaply out of the Congo. Some
companies were also accused by the UN of aligning with elements of the
warring parties.

Fast forward to 2008, and RAID, which is funded by the Queen Elizabeth
House, remains determined to convince several of the world’s most
powerful governments to investigate the UN’s allegations. Stealing
natural resources amidst the chaos of a war violates guidelines set-
forth by the Organization for Economic Co-operation, which administers
these ethical standards endorsed by over 30 nations, says RAID. The
International Criminal Court has also started its own investigation,
and RAID is calling on all named governments to cooperate with the

But there’s one major problem: nearly all of the governments,
including the US State Department, have essentially brushed RAID off.
They’re refusing to initiate an investigation despite the assurance,
for example, of Richard S. Williamson, who was US Ambassador to the UN
at the time. He told the UN Security Council “the United States
government will look into the allegations against these companies and
take appropriate measures [and] not turn a blind eye to these

Not long after the report from the UN Panel of Experts went public,
the UN exonerated all US companies. RAID says diplomatic pressure from
the US and other governments made the UN cave. “The US government
was one of the most determined to quash the UN Panel’s reports but this
is also true of Canada, the UK and Belgium,” says Tricia Feeney,
executive director of RAID. “All (US companies) were exonerated. The
UN Panel said the cases had been resolved.”

Feeney says just because the UN laid down, doesn’t mean the companies
are innocent. “Essentially the UN was forced to drop the case but as
they explained (in their reports), ‘resolved’ didn’t mean that the
initial allegations were unsubstantiated,” she says. “The (US)
companies have tried to hide behind the technicality of ‘resolved’ but
the UN itself made clear that this classification didn’t mean that the
companies had not behaved in the way described in the UN reports.”

The UN said it stands by the report, but added it is up to the
governments to make their own investigation and prosecute if need be.
RAID says the UN has cowered because if Western-based mining
companies are prosecuted out of Africa, China may step in. It is widely
known the West grows more concerned by the day as China continues to
sign more and more resource concessions with African nations, such as
Sudan and Nigeria.

In interviews over the phone, several of the named companies insisted
they were not involved with any wrongdoing in the Congo. The CEO of
Eagle Wings Resources International, for instance, who did not offer
his name for publication, swore “on the Bible” he was unaware his
company may have been acting unethical. Both a mining company and
coltan broker, Eagle Wings was one of a handful of US companies
accused of using child labor in one of their mines in eastern DRC.
Eagle Wings was also an alleged business partners with an “elite
network” of Rwandan military officers, politicos and businessmen.
Accusations of child labor have bankrupted Eagle Wings, said the CEO.
After finding out his company had been charged by the UN, his
customers abandoned him.

But even if the mining companies take the brunt of the blame from RAID
and the UN, some experts say there’s a whole other dynamic when it
comes to blame for the “The PlayStation War”. When the war began in
1998, the race for every adult in the West to have a cell phone was
well past the starting line. A computer in every household was also
becoming a reality. And by the end of 2000, millions of Americans were
still waiting for a PlayStation 2, a second-generation video game
console, which SONY says was having manufacturing issues.

To fulfill the personal-tech desires of hundreds of millions of
consumers, SONY and other manufacturers needed electric capacitors.
These capacitors were made with tantalum, which is able to withstand
extreme heat. So as multiple technological revolutions occurred in
unison at the end of the 1990s, the worldwide demand for tantalum
began to boil. Like today’s demand for oil, this fever puts tremendous
stress on tantalum’s supply chain. From the beginning of 1999 to the
beginning of 2001, the world price of tantalum went from US $49.00 a
pound to $275.00 a pound. At the same time, the demand and price of
coltan also began skyrocketing; coltan is needed to make tantalum.

By 1999, the Rwandan army and several closely linked militias had
swarmed over the hills of eastern DRC and took many coltan mines by
force, said the UN. The Rwandan army that year would eventually make
at least $250 million by selling DRC coltan with the help of mining
companies and metal brokers. The estimates of the war’s dead range
from hundreds of thousands to several million. A couple million
Congolese are believed to have been displaced.

American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker of tantalum capacitors
would eventually swear off coltan from the Congo because of human
rights violations, making suppliers certify origins. “But it may be a
case of too little, too late,” stated the UN Panel of Experts. “Much
of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell
phones and electronics all over the world.”

David Barouski, a researcher and journalist from Wisconsin, says it is
certain that the coltan from this conflict is also in SONY video game
consoles across the world. “SONY’s PlayStation 2 launch (spring of
2000) was a big part of the huge increase in demand for coltan that
began in early 1999,” said Barouski, who has witnessed the chaos of
eastern DRC firsthand. “SONY and other companies like it, have the
benefit of plausible deniability,” he said, “because the coltan ore
trades hands so many times from when it is mined to when SONY gets a
processed product, that a company often has no idea where the original
coltan ore came from, and frankly don’t care to know.” He adds, “But
statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that SONY
made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan.”

SONY still uses tantalum in some of its parts, Satoshi Fukuoka, a
spokesperson SONY from Japan, said in an e-mail. He said they are
satisfied with responses from suppliers the tantalum they use is not
“illegally mined Congo coltan”. This also goes for past purchases of
tantalum parts as well, he said, but he did not specify how far back
they began demanding parts without Congo coltan. Fukuoka said the
PlayStation 2, PSP and PlayStation 3, “are manufactured mostly from
independent parts and components that manufacturers procured

“The material suppliers source their original material from multiple
mines in various countries. It is therefore hard for us to know what
the supply chain mix is,” he said. “I am happy to state to you that to
the best of our knowledge, (SONY) is not using the material about
which you have expressed concern.” Like the war in the Congo itself,
the price of coltan has since cooled and is being priced at levels
pre-1999, as the demand for the “black gold” declines. Nevertheless,
experts such as Barouski say another Congo resource will take its
place as the next “hot commodity”, and the emergence of another
African resource war will not be far behind.



Blood on Your Phone? Unlikely It’s ‘Conflict Coltan’
Tales of coltan—tantalum ore—derived from exploitation in the Congo
seem mythical. But only a new tracking test could prove it
BY Jack Ewing / November 17, 2008

It sounded like a compelling story. During a visit to South Africa in
October, I saw a news report in which a refugee from the Democratic
Republic of the Congo described in wrenching terms how demand for a
metal used in consumer electronics is fueling a new outbreak of
bloodshed in the mineral-rich region.

A bit of searching on Google supported the notion that mobile-phone
users are helping create a humanitarian catastrophe because they make
a market for illegally mined coltan ore from the war zone in eastern
Congo. “Is there blood on your mobile phone?” asked Danish relief
group DanChurchAid on a Web page that dates back to 2006 but is still
available. But when I began investigating, the truth turned out to be
more nuanced—providing a lesson in how difficult it can be to know
whether your buying habits are socially responsible. In fact, the
story demonstrates how difficult it is for companies to be socially
responsible even if they try.

A Tantalum Shortage in 2000
The mineral in question is known as coltan, which is actually African
slang for ore that contains tantalum, a metal prized for electronics
use because of its resistance to corrosion and heat. In fact, mobile
phones do contain tantalum, as do a host of other products, including
MP3 players, gaming consoles, and even aircraft engines. A typical
Nokia handset has a tantalum capacitor, a component that temporarily
stores electrical charges, according to the Finnish handset maker.

The electronics industry is clearly sensitive to charges that it uses
“conflict coltan,” which was a big issue several years ago. In 2000,
during an earlier round of fighting in the Congo that killed millions
of people, fears of a global tantalum shortage—not related to the
conflict—pushed the price of the refined product to as high as $300
per pound, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s at least
four times the current price. Tantalum became one of a host of minerals
—including gold, tin, and cobalt—exploited by various factions in the
Congo to purchase weapons or enrich themselves.

If you live in a lawless corner of the Congo, coltan might seem like
an attractive business, at least compared to subsistence farming. The
ore lends itself to so-called artisanal mining: Local people can dig
it up and concentrate it using homemade sluices, similar to how
California pioneers panned for gold. Guerilla factions in the Congo,
as well as their government backers in countries such as Rwanda or
Uganda, make money by controlling the coltan mines directly or by
extracting payoffs from small-scale miners and dealers.

Not So Much Congolese Tantalum
The coltan trade was even lucrative enough to attract the
international arms mafia. According to a 2003 U.N. report, one coltan
smuggler was Viktor Bout, a notorious former KGB agent now being held
in a Thai jail as he fights extradition to the U.S. on charges he
supplied weapons to terrorist groups. Bout used a fleet of cargo
planes to haul loads of illegally mined coltan and other minerals from
the Congo to foreign buyers, according to the U.N. “There are profits
to be made because it can be moved relatively easily,” says Jason
Burkitt, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London who follows the
mining industry. “It lends itself to entrepreneurial types, whether
they’re local business people or warlords.”

But does that mean your mobile phone is helping General Laurent
Nkunda— whose ethnic Tutsi militia recently overran swaths of eastern
Congo— buy AK-47s and land mines? That would be a stretch. As it
happens, the Congo is not a major source of tantalum. Most comes
from Australia, followed by Canada and such African countries as
Ethiopia and Mozambique. The U.S. Geological Survey groups the
Congo under “other” tantalum sources that together account for just
2% of world production. Recycled tantalum also is available. Even
tantalum from the Congo isn’t necessarily tainted: Foreign and
domestic companies mine it legally in some areas, providing an
important source of livelihood.

In addition, the earlier tantalum controversy inspired companies to
take steps to ensure their metal comes from legitimate sources. German
metals company H.C. Starck, which buys ore and refines it into
tantalum powder for industrial use, says it gets most of its raw
material from Australia and none from Africa.

Impossible to Be Certain
Nokia says it requires component suppliers to certify that none of
their tantalum comes from the Congo and it periodically checks
compliance. In any case, Nokia says that the mobile-phone industry
accounts for 2% of total tantalum demand and that each mobile phone
contains only 40 milligrams of the stuff.

The odds that your phone contains conflict coltan are pretty long. But
activists say the point is that even the relatively small amounts of
coltan coming from the Congo are providing revenue for the warring
factions. “I agree that a small percentage of coltan is coming from
the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but this small percentage is
very important to the DRC,” says Esther de Haan, a researcher at Dutch
activist group makeITfair, who notes that unsafe working conditions
are also a huge concern. “Companies are responsible for going down the
supply chain and finding out where [their supply] is coming from.”

London-based humanitarian group Global Witness has also revived the
conflict coltan issue, on Nov. 14 calling on companies to ensure they
are not buying coltan or other minerals such as tin ore or gold from
the North and South Tivu regions of the Congo, where the fighting is
taking place. But it is nearly impossible for companies to say with
absolute certainty that no tantalum of dubious origin makes it into
the supply chain. Shady operators have an incentive to buy black
market ore, which is cheaper because it avoids the costly customs-
clearance process that legitimate importers must undergo. Most
developed countries have strict controls. But some Chinese ports wave
shipments through, industry sources say. Once the ore has been refined
to nonradioactive tantalum powder, it’s impossible to trace.

Tracking Coltan Fingerprints
There may be a new way to keep illegally mined coltan and other
valuable metals off the market. Frank Melcher, a scientist at
Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in
Hanover, leads a team that has devised a way to identify where ore
comes from. Every coltan mine has its own geological history and
composition. Melcher’s team has already catalogued 600 unique coltan
“fingerprints,” and can tell precisely where ore comes from, even when
batches from different locations are mixed together.

With backing from the German government, Melcher is pushing to set up
a system in which legitimate mines would register their coltan
fingerprints. An independent organization would spot-check ore and
reject any that isn’t in the approved database. “Our goal is to
establish a certified trading chain between traders and consumers,”
Melcher says. Such a system could also be used to ensure that mines
provide decent working conditions and meet environmental standards.
The problem is that the testing procedure is costly and time-
consuming. But Melcher sounds optimistic that companies that use
components containing tantalum will support his plan. “They don’t want
to be in the news again,” he says.

Frank Melcher
email : F.Melcher [at] bgr [dot] de

Congo, Democratic Republic: Cell phones, forest destruction and death

Could anyone imagine that cell phones are tainted with the blood of
3.2 million deaths since 1998? Also, that the same thing happens with
some children’s video games? And that mega-technologies contribute to
forest depredation and spoliation of the rich natural resources of
paradoxically impoverished peoples?

In the case of these new high techs, it is Coltan that is at stake —
the minerals columbium and tantalite, or Coltan for short. Tantalite
is a rare, hard and dense metal, very resistant to corrosion and high
temperatures and is an excellent electricity and heat conductor. It is
used in the microchips of cell phone batteries to prolong duration of
the charge, making this business flourish. Provisions for 2004 foresee
sales of 1,000 million units. To these properties are added that its
extraction does not entail heavy costs –it is obtained by digging in
the mud– and that it is easily sold, enabling the companies involved
in the business to obtain juicy dividends.

Even though Coltan is extracted in Brazil, Thailand and much of it
from Australia –the prime producer of Coltan on a world level– it is
in Africa where 80% of the world reserves are to be found. Within this
continent, the Democratic Republic of Congo concentrates over 80% of
the deposits, where 10,000 miners toil daily in the province of Kivu
(eastern Congo), a territory that has been occupied since 1998 by the
armies of Rwanda and Uganda. A series of companies has been set up in
the zone, associated to large transnational capital, local governments
and military forces (both state and “guerrilla”) in a dispute over the
control of the region for the extraction of Coltan and other minerals.
The United Nations has not hesitated to state that this strategic
mineral is funding a war that the former United States Secretary of
State, Madeleine Albright called “the first African world war” (and we
understand by world wars, those in which the great powers share out
the world), and is one of its causes.

In August 1998, the Congolese Union for Democracy (Rassemblement
Congolais pour la Démocratie-RCD), launched a rebellion in the city of
Goma, supported by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA). Since then, in a
struggle in which, behind the myth of ethnic rivalries, are hidden the
old colonial powers that continue to ransack the wealth of post-
Colonial Africa, the war has been rife between two, loosely defined
parties. On the one hand the RDC and the Governments of Rwanda and
Uganda, supported by the United States, relying on the military bases
such as that built in Rwanda by the United States company Brown &
Root, a branch of Halliburton, where Rwandese forces are trained and
logistic support is provided to their troops in the DRC, together with
United States combat helicopters and spy satellites. The other party
is made up of the Democratic Republic of Congo (led by one of Kabila’s
sons, after his father was assassinated by the Rwandese), Angola,
Namibia and Zimbabwe.

However, behind these states are the companies sharing out the zone.
Various joint companies have been set up for this purpose, the most
important one being SOMIGL (the Great Lakes Mining Company), a joint
company set up in November 2000, involving Africom, Premeco, Cogecom
and Cogear, (the latter two are Belgium companies –it should be
remembered that DRC, formerly the Belgium Congo, was a Belgium
colony), Masingiro GmbH (a German company) and various other
companies that ceased their activities in January 2002 for various reasons
(a drop in Coltan prices, difficult working conditions, suspension of
Coltan imports from DRC) and are waiting for better conditions: Sogem
(a Belgian company), Cabot and Kemet (U.S.) the joint United States-
German company Eagles Wings Resources (now with headquarters in
Rwanda), among others.

The transport companies belong to close family members of the
presidents of Rwanda and Uganda. In these virtually military zones,
private air companies bring in arms and take out minerals. Most of the
Coltan extracted is later refined by a small number of companies in
Germany, the United States, Kazakhstan and the Far East. The branch of
Bayer, Starck produces 50% of powdered tantalite on a world level.
Dozens of companies are linked to the traffic and elaboration of this
product, with participation of the major monopolizing companies in
Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.
As if this were not enough, the Trade, Development and Industry Bank,
created in 1996 with headquarters in the capital city of Rwanda,
Kigali, acts as correspondent for the CITIBANK in the zone, and
handles large amounts of money from Coltan, gold and diamond
operations. Thirty-four companies import Coltan from the Congo, among
these, 27 are of western origin, mainly Belgium, Dutch and German.

The Belgium air company, Sabena is one of the means of transporting
the mineral from Kigali (capital city of Rwanda) to Brussels, and
associated to American Airlines, announced last 15 June the suspension
of the service, under strong pressure from the world campaign “No
blood on my cell phone!” (or: “Pas de sang sur mon GSM”), exhorting
people not to buy cell phones containing Coltan due to its
repercussion on the prolongation of the civil war in the Congo. As a
result of this campaign, the Belgium research institute International
Peace Information Service (IPIS) produced a document in January 2002
“Supporting the War Economy in the DRC: European Companies and the
Coltan Trade,” which documents the leading role played by the
companies in promoting the war through their cooperation with the
military and exhorting that the international consideration of the
Coltan trade be given priority over its local aspects.

The main zones where Coltan is extracted are located in forest zones,
such as the Ituri forest (see WRM bulletin No. 67). The entry of
military commandos and workers (many of them farmers who have been
dispossessed of their lands and resources, seeking the promise of
better income), the installation of mining camps, the construction of
routes to reach and take out the coveted mineral, all this goes to
conspire against the forest as a whole. Formerly fulfilling functions
for the region and the neighbouring peoples, the forest, once the
traditional lands of the hunting and gathering indigenous peoples,
such as the Mbuti and a reserve for gorillas and okapis –a relative
of the giraffe– the habitat of elephants and monkeys, has become the
scenario for war and depredation.

The African journalist, Kofi Akosah-Sarpong has even stated that
“Coltan in general terms is not helping the local people. In fact, it
is the curse of the Congo.” He has revealed that there is evidence
that this material contaminates, pointing out its connection with
congenital deformations in babies in the mining zone, which are born
with bandy legs. Far from clean and innocent, these technologies, on
which the concentration of capitals is based and built, have acquired
through their “globalisation” their highest expression, contaminating
and breaking up the web of life in its multiple and rich
manifestations. In the meanwhile, over the tombs of the 2000 African
children and farmers who die every day in the Congo, can we
absentmindedly continue to use our cell phones?

{Article based on information from: “Supporting the War Economy in the
DRC: European Companies and the Coltan Trade” and “European
companies and the Coltan Trade: an Update”, International Peace
Information Service, http://users.skynet.be/ipis/tnewpubsnl.htm ;
“Basta de matanzas y saqueo en el Congo”, Solidarité Europe-Afrique,
Belgium, http://www2.minorisa.es/inshuti/extracto.htm ; “La fiebre
del coltan:
el imperialismo continúa”, Ramiro de Altube, Observatorio
de Conflictos, correo electrónico: obserflictos@yahoo.com.ar ,
http://www.nodo50.org/observatorio/coltan.htm ; “La fiebre del
coltan”, Ramón Lobo, El País Spain, 2/09/2001,
http://www.elpais.es/suplementos/domingo/20010902/1fiebre.html; “UN
report accuses Western companies of looting Congo”, Chris Talbot,
26/10/2002, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/oct2002/cong-o26.shtml ;
“The Trouble With Coltan”, Kofi Akosah-Sarpong,
http://www.expotimes.net/issue020116/AAbusiness2.htm }


Coltan and Gorillas
The main area where Coltan is mined, also contains the Kahuzi Biega
National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla. In Kahuzi Biega National
Park the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to
130 as the ground is cleared to make mining easier. Not only has this
reduced the available food for the Gorillas, the poverty caused by the
displacement of the local populations by the miners has lead to
Gorillas being killed and their meat being sold as “bush meat” to the
miners and rebel armies that control the area. Within the Dem. Rep. of
Congo as a whole, the U.N. Environment Program has reported that the
number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight Dem. Rep. of Congo
national parks has declined by 90% over the past 5 years, and only
3,000 now remain.

Due to the damage caused to the Gorilla population and their natural
habitat, companies that use Coltan are now starting to demand that
their Coltan only comes from legitimately mined sources and is not a
byproduct of the war. American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker
of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their
coltan ore does not come from Dem. Rep. of Congo or from neighbouring
countries. Such moves could lead to “Gorilla Safe ” cellphones being
marketed, much in the same way that Tuna meat is now sold as “Dolphin

Other sources
There are few alternative sources of Coltan apart from the Dem. Rep.
of Congo, although the University of St Andrews geologist, Dr Adrian
Finch recently reported that he has found Coltan inside extinct
volcanoes in the remote North Motzfeldt region of Greenland. Dr Finch
has now received a two year funding plan from the Carnegie Trust and
Gino Watkins Fund to investigate the commercial viability of mining
the volcanoes.

What to do ?
There is very little the “man on the street” can do to prevent Coltan
exploitation as it is not a “visible” component of cellphones that can
be differentiated when shopping, but continuing pressure on circuit
board manufacturers has lead to many demanding that their Coltan
supplies only come from legitimate sources. Similar pressure on other
users of Coltan can also help to ensure that only legitimately mined
and sold Coltan is used in circuit boards. At a government level,
pressure on local politicians to drive awareness of the ongoing civil
war in the Dem. Rep. of Congo and help to secure a resolution will
help to prevent the extinction of the Mountain Gorilla.

The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (T.I.C.), the industry
organisation representing producers, processors and consumers of
tantalum and niobium around the world, said that it deplores the
reported activities of illegal miners in the Kahuzi-Biega National
Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of
Congo. It was agreed at the T.I.C. Executive Committee meeting in
Brussels on April 3rd 2001 that the organisation would take a stand
regarding the use and production of coltan mined in these World
Heritage Sites.




Every year, an estimated 400 million units of obsolete electronics are
scrapped. Four billion pounds of electronic waste, or e-waste, was
discarded in the United States in 2005, accounting for between 2% and
4% of the municipal solid waste stream. As much as 87.5% of this was
incinerated or dumped in landfills. Of the remaining 12.5% collected
for “recycling,” industry sources claim that about 80% is exported to
developing countries where it is processed in primitive conditions,
severely endangering the environment, workers and communities.
Pollution created by irresponsible e-waste processing can also come
back to haunt those in the exporting countries as well in the form of
air pollution fallout via long-range transport.

The world faces an e-waste crisis because of the following factors:
* Huge volumes: The dual forces of rapid obsolescence of
electronic gadgetry combined with astronomically burgeoning use have
created mountains of e-waste—the largest growing waste stream our
economy produces.
* Toxic design: Electronic equipment contains some of the most
toxic substances known: mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium,
and brominated flame retardants, among others. Thus, when this
equipment becomes waste, it is toxic waste. When burned, even worse
toxins can be formed such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons that can cause cancer and birth-defects. Until recently,
far too little emphasis has been placed by manufacturers on
eliminating toxic materials.
* Poor design and complexity: e-waste is full of many different
materials (such as multiple kinds of metals, plastics and chemicals)
that are mixed, bolted, screwed, snapped, glued or soldered together.
This makes separation for recycling difficult. Further, little
attention has been paid to designing equipment for recycling.
Therefore, recycling either requires intensive labor or sophisticated
and costly technologies.
* No financial incentive to recycle: There’s usually not enough
value in most electronic waste to cover the costs of responsibly
managing it in developed countries unless laws require such management
as a service industry. For this reason it is exported to countries
where workers are paid low wages and the infrastructure and legal
framework is too weak to protect the environment, workers and
* Reuse abuse: Sending equipment and parts for reuse – an
important solution – can easily be abused by falsely labeling scrap as
reusable or repairable equipment. Often this “reusable” equipment ends
up getting dumped in countries lacking any infrastructure to properly
manage it.
* Policy of “free trade in toxic waste”: In the U.S. and Canada,
the laws governing export of trade in hazardous electronic waste are
tragically inadequate, and thus these two countries are the primary
sources of the global crisis. The U.S. is the only developed country
in the world that has failed to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, an
international treaty controlling trade in hazardous waste from richer
to poorer countries. In 1995, that treaty adopted a full ban on
exports from rich to poorer countries. Both the U.S. and Canada
actively oppose this prohibition. In Canada, the Basel Convention is
not properly implemented, allowing almost all e-waste to flow abroad
freely. In both countries, then, it is perfectly legal for businesses
to maximize profit by exporting toxic electronics to developing
countries, even when this export is a violation of the laws of
importing countries. The export of toxic electronic waste to
developing countries disproportionately burdens them with a toxic
legacy and allows for externalization of real costs.
* Prison laborers employed to process e-waste: Unlike other
countries in the world, the U.S. sends much of its hazardous e-waste
to U.S. prisons to process in less-regulated environments without the
worker protections and rights afforded in the private sector.
Moreover, such operations amount to government subsidies, undermining
the development of responsible private-sector recycling infra-
structure and distorting the economics of recycling.
* Private data is imbedded in electronic devices: Computers, PDAs,
mobile phones and even printers and fax machines hold private data
such as social security, bank account and credit card numbers and
private emails. These can be used by criminals involved in identity
theft to hijack bank accounts and conduct blackmail and extortion if
this data is not completely eradicated. Loss of confidential data is
another form of liability and irresponsibility stemming from improper
e-waste disposal.
* Lack of regulation requiring proper management: U.S. regulations
mostly exempt the electronic waste stream from environmental laws and
active OSHA oversight. Further, according to the laws of Canada and
the U.S., most toxic electronic waste is still perfectly legal to
dispose of in non-hazardous waste landfills and incinerators.

Documented harm
In 2002, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics
Coalition released the ground breaking report and film Exporting Harm:
The High Tech Trashing of Asia, that exposed the toxic “recycling” of
discarded electronics in China. A second film and report released in
2005 by BAN, The Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa,
showed similar tragic results happening in Africa, this time in the
name of ‘reuse’ and ‘bridging the digital divide.’ Images of men,
women and children burning tons of toxic circuit boards, wires, and
plastic parts exposed the fast-cheap-and-dirty side of our consumption
of computers, televisions, faxes, printers, etc. Furthermore, BAN
analyzed hard-drives from exported computers collected in Africa and
found massive amounts of private data freely available for criminal
exploitation. We have also discovered that when U.S. prisoners are
used as cheap labor, they are exposed to these poisons as well. The
Federal Prison Industries’ UNICOR, which processes much of the e-waste
in the US, is now the focus of a Department of Justice investigation
for the toxic exposures prisoners suffer. Finally as much as 87
percent of discarded toxic e-waste is simply dumped in municipal
landfills or incinerators, ill equipped to contain or destroy such
toxic waste.

Unfortunately this grossly irresponsible waste mismanagement and toxic
trade is the norm in the North American recycling industry. It is
still all too commonplace for recyclers and even electronics
manufacturers, aided by the inadequate or non-existent policies of the
Canadian and U.S. governments, to leave the dirty and dangerous work
of managing our toxic waste to the poorest of the poor in developing
countries. The resulting environmental hazards and social injustice
ravage the land and people in these developing nations. Furthermore,
these poisons come back to our shores and into our bodies via long-
range air and ocean pollution, toxic imports and contaminated food.
Government failure: externalizing our toxic impacts

To date, unlike the 27 member countries of the European Union, the
United States and Canada have failed to create legislation providing a
national system to finance and responsibly deal with toxic e-waste.
Instead, an e-waste anarchy is sanctioned, where we can exploit the
cheap and dirty ‘solutions’ that ‘externalize’ (or pass on) the real
toxic impacts and their costs to others – poor communities in
developing countries, disempowered prisoners in this country, or local
municipalities and taxpayers who suffer from this material getting
dumped in local landfills or incinerated, polluting soil, air and
water. Further, the U.S. and Canada have failed to ratify or properly
implement the Basel Convention that prescribes international rules to
prevent such toxic waste trade.

US Congress’ watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office
(GAO) recently published a report entitled, “Electronic Waste: EPA
Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger
Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation.“ [http://www.gao.gov/
new.items/d081044.pdf] The GAO report describes, in no uncertain
terms, the complete inadequacy of legislation to control e-waste
exports and the lack of EPA enforcement of the minimal regulations
that do exist, resulting in a flood of toxins to the developing world.

Instead of properly regulating electronic waste management and trade,
the EPA has tried to bring interest groups together to create
voluntary solutions. These efforts have ended in failure or have
produced little more than minimalist, ‘lowest-common denominator’
standards, which seemingly please everyone, including waste exporters,
but result in continued abuse to the environment and human health. One
of these efforts is the recently released “R2” Standard for
Responsible Recycling.

Meanwhile, in lieu of an appropriate federal response, states and
municipalities must cope with the national failure by passing a
variety of local laws and state laws. However, the U.S. Constitution
forbids these local governments from legislating international trade,
so states and municipalities are helpless to prohibit the flood of e-
waste leaving our shores. It is in this unregulated landscape, that
responsible electronics recycling companies are challenged to compete
against unscrupulous brokers, and exporters and those who deceptively
call themselves “recyclers.” These bad actors simply load up seagoing
containers and ship U.S. hazardous electronics to the highest bidders
globally. Almost always, this results in the wastes shipped to a
developing country to be processed by cheap, unprotected labor to
maximize profits. These “low road” operators are thriving while the
responsible companies, with their safer, more expensive methods,

Toxic “E-Waste” Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says
BY Ben Harder / November 8, 2005

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This familiar environmentalist slogan outlines
an approach to minimizing how much trash ends up in landfills,
incinerators, and waterways. The concept is being employed to cope
with one potentially hazardous form of waste—electronic junk such as
old computers, cell phones, and televisions. But the process for
managing this so-called e-waste may get coopted for unscrupulous
purposes more often than it’s legitimately used, a recent report
suggests. “A lot of these materials are being sent [to developing
nations] under the guise of reuse—to bridge the digital divide,” said
Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst for the Seattle, Washington-
based Basel Action Network. Last month the activist organization
issued a report titled “The Digital Dump.” The paper concludes that
three-quarters of the supposedly reusable electronics shipped to
Africa’s largest port are broken.

One of the problems is that no one certifies whether donated machines
work before they hit the seaways. Because of this, the report says, e-
waste is a growing problem in Lagos, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the
developing world. Much of the waste ends up being discarded along
rivers and roads. Often it’s picked apart by destitute scavengers, who
may face dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals in the broken

Traders in places like Lagos are willing to receive this cast-off
junk, though many of their governments officially forbid it, Gutierrez
said. The importers sell the working machines. Then they pay workers a
pittance to burn the plastic casings and wire insulation in broken
machines and strip out sought-after materials such as gold and copper.
The low-tech recovery process could expose workers and the local
environment to lead, cadmium, mercury, and other hazardous materials
used to build electronics. Workers can also be exposed to carcinogenic
compounds called dioxins that are byproducts of incinerated plastics.

“Green Passport”
According to Gutierrez, this shadow economy exists because the guise
of recycling and reusing electronics gives dealers “a green passport”
to ship waste around the globe. Most of the waste comes from developed
nations that should know better, he said. “Forty-five percent of the
junk that’s coming in [to Lagos] is coming from the United States,” he
said. “Another 45 percent comes from Europe, and the other 10 percent
from Japan and Israel.” The European Union, Israel, Japan, and the
United States have signed the Basel Convention, which forbids
countries from exporting hazardous waste, including electronics.
“There is some responsibility that the developing nations must take
upon themselves,” Gutierrez said. But, he added, “a greater element of
this responsibility should fall on the exporting state.”

China, for example, has become a cache for vast amounts of e-waste.
The nation is beginning to take action to stem the flow of hazardous
material across its borders. “The Chinese government, after many years
of denial, is finally beginning to take the helm,” said Ted Smith,
founder and senior strategist of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Gutierrez noted that even if China enforces its existing laws and
keeps e-waste out, “it will flow to the next country with lax
environmental standards.” E-waste, he said, “follows the path of least
economic resistance.”

“That’s why we need to regulate this at the source end,” Smith agreed.
Laws should prevent e-waste exportation and require manufacturers to
shoulder the responsibility of recycling their products in the most
cost-effective manner, he said. Such a shift would make electronics
more expensive in the short term, he acknowledged, but environmental
damage and health hazards would be minimized. Gutierrez added that as
many toxic compounds as possible should be banned from new
electronics. Europe has already banned lead, cadmium, and a half dozen
other materials still permitted in U.S. products.

Problems Ahead
Gordon Davy, an engineer with technology firm Northrop Grumman in
Baltimore, Maryland, said such regulation would be coercive. Consumers
in developed countries would have to pay more for new electronics, and
poor laborers elsewhere would lose the income they now get from
stripping apart dead electronics. Davy also questions whether e-waste
is harming people. “Pollution in the third world is clearly
deplorable,” he said. “But as far as health consequences [of e-waste
is concerned], the environmental activists need to provide supporting
evidence. They need to identify and count their victims.” Gutierrez
countered, “We’re dealing with toxic substances that have been studied
to death. We need not come up with further studies. It would be an
overanalysis of an obvious problem.”

“The e-waste crisis is relatively young,” he said. “The problems [that
people] are being exposed to will germinate for years.” By the time
chronic diseases such as cancer arise, it will be too late to avert a
public-health disaster, he said. Smith, of the Silicon Valley Toxics
Coalition, concurred. “Right now [e-waste] doesn’t seem to be causing
any enormous environmental hazards. But over the next several
generations it’s going to create a problem.” University of Maryland
student Haibing Ma is planning ahead. The graduate student from China
aims to develop a framework that could help his homeland deal with its
e-waste problem.

While working toward a solution, Ma is loath to add to the problem, so
he purchased his computers from Hewlett Packard. That manufacturer is
one of several that have announced so-called takeback policies,
promising to safely dispose of obsolete equipment returned by
consumers. “I mailed one monitor back to HP last semester,” Ma said.
“But the [shipping] charge … we pay ourselves.” With other
electronics, manufacturers provide no such choice. “The television is
the problem,” Ma said. “We have so many different producers, and none
of them have a clear takeback policy.” When his TV dies, Ma says,
he’ll put it in the waste bin. “We don’t know where it will go.”

Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste / Nov. 9, 2008

60 Minutes is going to take you to one of the most toxic places on
Earth – a place government officials and gangsters don’t want you to
see. It’s a town in China where you can’t breathe the air or drink the
water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead.

It’s worth risking a visit because much of the poison is coming out of
the homes, schools and offices of America. This is a story about
recycling – about how your best intentions to be green can be
channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States
and into the wasteland. That wasteland is piled with the burning
remains of some of the most expensive, sophisticated stuff that
consumers crave. And 60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley
discovered that the gangs who run this place wanted to keep it a
secret. What are they hiding? The answer lies in the first law of the
digital age: newer is better. In with the next thing, and out with the
old TV, phone or computer. All of this becomes obsolete, electronic
garbage called “e-waste.”

Computers may seem like sleek, high-tech marvels. But what’s inside
them? “Lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides. All of
these materials have known toxicological effects that range from brain
damage to kidney disease to mutations, cancers,” Allen Hershkowitz, a
senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural
Resources Defense Council, explained. “The problem with e-waste is
that it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream
worldwide,” he said. Asked what he meant by “fastest-growing,”
Hershkowitz said. “Well, we throw out about 130,000 computers every
day in the United States.” And he said over 100 million cell phones
are thrown out annually.

At a recycling event in Denver, 60 Minutes found cars bumper-to-bumper
for blocks, in a line that lasted for hours. They were there to drop
off their computers, PDAs, TVs and other electronic waste. Asked what
he thought happens once his e-waste goes into recycling, one man told
Pelley, “Well my assumption is they break it apart and take all the
heavy metals and out and then try to recycle some of the stuff that’s
bad.” Most folks in line were hoping to do the right thing, expecting
that their waste would be recycled in state-of-the-art facilities that
exist here in America. But really, there’s no way for them to know
where all of this is going. The recycling industry is exploding and,
as it turns out, some so-called recyclers are shipping the waste
overseas, where it’s broken down for the precious metals inside.

Executive Recycling, of Englewood, Colo., which ran the Denver event,
promised the public on its Web site: “Your e-waste is recycled
properly, right here in the U.S. – not simply dumped on somebody
else.” That policy helped Brandon Richter, the CEO of Executive
Recycling, win a contract with the city of Denver and expand
operations into three western states. Asked what the problem is with
shipping this waste overseas, Richter told Pelley, “Well, you know,
they’ve got low-income labor over there. So obviously they don’t have
all of the right materials, the safety equipment to handle some of
this material.”

Executive does recycling in-house, but 60 Minutes was curious about
shipping containers that were leaving its Colorado yard. 60 Minutes
found one container filled with monitors. They’re especially hazardous
because each picture tube, called a cathode ray tube or CRT, contains
several pounds of lead. It’s against U.S. law to ship them overseas
without special permission. 60 Minutes took down the container’s
number and followed it to Tacoma, Wash., where it was loaded on a
ship. When the container left Tacoma, 60 Minutes followed it for 7,459
miles to Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong.

It turns out the container that started in Denver was just one of
thousands of containers on an underground, often illegal smuggling
route, taking America’s electronic trash to the Far East. Our guide to
that route was Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, a
watchdog group named for the treaty that is supposed to stop rich
countries from dumping toxic waste on poor ones. Puckett runs a
program to certify ethical recyclers. And he showed 60 Minutes what’s
piling up in Hong Kong. “It’s literally acres of computer monitors,”
Pelley commented. “Is it legal to import all of these computer
monitors into Hong Kong?”

“No way. It is absolutely illegal, both from the standpoint of Hong
Kong law but also U.S. law and Chinese law. But it’s happening,”
Puckett said. 60 Minutes followed the trail to a place Puckett
discovered in southern China – a sort of Chernobyl of electronic waste
– the town of Guiyu. But we weren’t there very long before we were
picked up by the cops and taken to City Hall. We told the mayor we
wanted to see recycling. So he personally drove us to a shop. “Let me
explain what’s happening here,” Pelley remarked while in Guiyu. “We
were brought into the mayor’s office. The mayor told us that we’re
essentially not welcome here, but he would show us one place where
computers are being dismantled and this is that place. A pretty tidy
shop. The mayor told us that we would be welcome to see the rest of
the town, but that the town wouldn’t be prepared for our visit for
another year. “So we were allowed to shoot at that location for about
five minutes,” Pelley explained further. “And we’re back in the
mayor’s car headed back to City Hall, where I suspect we’ll be given
another cup of tea and sent on our way out of town with a police
escort no doubt.” And we were. But the next day, in a different car
and on a different road, we got in.

“This is really the dirty little secret of the electronic age,” Jim
Puckett said. Greenpeace has been filming around Guiyu and caught the
recycling work. Women were heating circuit boards over a coal fire,
pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder. Men were using what
is literally a medieval acid recipe to extract gold. Pollution has
ruined the town. Drinking water is trucked in. Scientists have studied
the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-
causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times
more likely to end in miscarriage, and that seven out of ten kids have
too much lead in their blood. “These people are not just working with
these materials, they’re living with them. They’re all around their
homes,” Pelley told Allen Hershkowitz. “The situation in Guiyu is
actually pre-capitalist. It’s mercantile. It reverts back to a time
when people lived where they worked, lived at their shop. Open,
uncontrolled burning of plastics. Chlorinated and brominated plastics
is known worldwide to cause the emission of polychlorinated and
polybrominated dioxins. These are among the most toxic compounds
known on earth,” Hershkowitz explained. “We have a situation where
we have 21st century toxics being managed in a 17th century

The recyclers are peasant farmers who couldn’t make a living on the
land. Destitute, they’ve come by the thousands to get $8 a day.
Greenpeace introduced us to some of them. They were afraid and didn’t
want to be seen, but theirs are the hands that are breaking down
America’s computers. “The air I breathe in every day is so pungent I
can definitely feel it in my windpipe and affecting my lungs. It makes
me cough all the time,” one worker told Pelley, with the help of a
translator. “If you’re worried about your lungs and you’re burning
your hands, do you ever think about giving this up?” Pelley asked.
“Yes, I have thought of it,” the worker said. Asked why he doesn’t
give it up, the worker told him, “Because the money’s good.”

“You know, it struck me, talking to those workers the other day, that
they were destitute and they’re happy to have this work,” Pelley told
Puckett. “Well, desperate people will do desperate things,” Puckett
replied. “But we should never put them in that situation. You know,
it’s a hell of a choice between poverty and poison. We should never
make people make that choice.” Pelley, Puckett, and the 60 Minutes
team passed by a riverbed that had been blackened by the ash of burned
e-waste. “Oh, man, this is – it’s unbelievably acrid and choking,”
Pelley said, coughing. “This is an ash river. This is detritus from
burning all this material and this is what the kids get to play in,”
Puckett explained.

After a few minutes in the real recycling area, we were jumped.
Several men struggled for our cameras. The mayor hadn’t wanted us to
see this place, and neither did the businessmen who were profiting
from it. They got a soil sample that we’d taken for testing, but we
managed to wrestle the cameras back. What were they afraid of?
“They’re afraid of being found out,” Puckett said. “This is smuggling.
This is illegal. A lot of people are turning a blind eye here. And if
somebody makes enough noise, they’re afraid this is all gonna dry up.”

Back in Denver, there’s no threat of it drying up. In fact, it was a
flood. And Brandon Richter, CEO of Executive Recycling, was still
warning of the dangers of shipping waste to China. “I just heard
actually a child actually died over there breaking this material down,
just getting all these toxins,” he said. Then Pelley told him we’d
tracked his container to Hong Kong. “This is a photograph from your
yard, the Executive Recycling yard,” Pelley told Richter, showing him
a photo we’d taken of a shipping container in his yard. “We followed
this container to Hong Kong.”

“Okay,” Richter replied.
“And I wonder why that would be?” Pelley asked.
“Hmm. I have no clue,” Richter said.
“The Hong Kong customs people opened the container…and found it full
of CRT screens which, as you probably know, is illegal to export to
Hong Kong,” Pelley said.
“Yeah, yep,” Richter replied. “I don’t know if that container was
filled with glass. I doubt it was. We don’t fill glass, CRT glass in
those containers.”
“This container was in your yard, filled with CRT screens, and
exported to Hong Kong, which probably wouldn’t be legal,” Pelley said.
“No, absolutely not. Yeah,” Richter said.
“Can you explain that?” Pelley asked.
“Yeah, it’s not – it was not filled in our facility,” Richter said.

But that’s where 60 Minutes filmed it. And we weren’t the only ones
asking questions. It turns out Hong Kong customs intercepted the
container and sent it back to Executive Recycling, Englewood,
Colorado, the contents listed as “waste: cathode ray tubes.” U.S.
customs x-rayed the container and found the same thing. 60 Minutes
showed Richter this evidence, and later his lawyer told us the CRTs
were exported under Executive Recycling’s name, but without the
company’s permission. “I know this is your job,” Richter told Pelley.
“But, unfortunately, you know, when you attack small business owners
like this and you don’t have all your facts straight, it’s
unfortunate, you know?”

But here’s one more fact: the federal Government Accountability Office
set up a sting in which U.S. investigators posed as foreign importers.
Executive Recycling offered to sell 1,500 CRT computer monitors and
1,200 CRT televisions to the GAO’s fictitious broker in Hong Kong. But
Executive Recycling was not alone. The GAO report found that another
42 American companies were willing to do the same.

Who Was Following Whom?
BY Solly Granatstein / Nov. 11, 2008

It was clear from the outset that this was a place with something to
hide. We had come to southern China to set up a TV shoot, but we were
the ones being filmed. A slim Chinese man, in his early 30’s, with
short-cropped hair, was taking our picture with his cell phone. He was
standing about 20 yards from me and our fixer, Lamy Li. It’s hard to
say what gave it away, but there was no doubt he was an undercover
cop. When I turned toward him, he walked briskly in the opposite

Lamy and I had been walking through the grim town of Guiyu attempting,
with marginal success, to speak with workers. The skies were low and
grey. Plumes of dank smoke rose from salvage workshops and piles of
burning waste. Guiyu is a community of 60,000 where most of the people
are employed in the mining of precious metals from electronic waste,
also known as “‘e-waste.” E-waste is junked old computers, TV’s, cell
phones, printers, most of it toxic, and much coming to this shabby
corner of China from wealthier environs like America.

What we saw in Guiyu was gut-wrenching. I had read in scientific
journals that given all the toxic compounds contained in electronic
products, breaking them down is hazardous work. But that was nothing
like witnessing it in person. The place was a hell on earth of acrid
smoke and noxious smells. The pungent air scorched the back of our
throats. On my way to Guiyu, a scientist in Hong Kong had said, “Every
part of Guiyu has a different, terrible smell.” Now I knew what she

Through the smoke, workers could be seen dismantling electronic
components by hand, or melting them down over coal fires, for the tiny
bits of precious metals inside. Some were clearly underage, and most
were working with little protection, with neither gloves to protect
their hands nor masks to shield their lungs. The salvage operations
took place in the same shanties where the workers and their children

Just before we encountered the undercover cop who took our picture, we
had a run-in with one of the owners of the salvage works. He was
overseeing gold extraction from circuit boards. His workers dipped the
boards into large drums of hydrochloric and nitric acid, using a
technique, known as aqua regia, that dates from the Middle Ages.
Plumes of orange smoke rose from the drums and doubtlessly seared the
lungs of the workers. The whole operation took place on the edge of a
river. The acid leeched into the water, which had long since become
undrinkable. As if to advertise where he worked, the boss wore a
prominent gold medallion that swung from a gold chain around his neck.
When he saw the two of us, he started yelling at Lamy. “Get out of
here! You’re not welcome here! Get out!” We did just that.

This visit was just a reconnaissance mission, to know what we would be
filming upon the arrival of our correspondent, Scott Pelley, and the
camera crews. I figured there was no point in drawing any more
attention to ourselves than I already had simply by being a non-
Chinese person walking around in this remote town. So when I saw our
picture being taken by the cop with the cell phone, I suggested to
Lamy that we leave.

It was gloomy and wet when we came back to town the next morning.
Lamy had arranged to meet a man who would be able to introduce us to
some workers. We drove our small car to an appointed corner, he jumped
into the back seat, and we drove off. The worker liaison was a small, wiry
fellow in a tan rain slicker. He had scarred, dark skin with handsome
features and a wary smile. As we rounded a corner and parked against
the edge of a building, he told us that the town authorities had
recently warned workers that they would spend 30 days in jail if they
spoke with foreign reporters. Lamy explained to me that the workers
are migrants from other parts of China. Since they’re not official
citizens of this province, they have no right to health care or other
protections. “I keep thinking that they are totally vulnerable” she

A short distance in front of the car, I noticed a man standing under
an umbrella in an alley way. “Isn’t that the same dude who was taking
our picture yesterday?” I asked Lamy. It was difficult to tell. His
face was partially obscured. Not wanting the worker liaison to be
discovered, we drove away and out of town. Our driver, a local, was
rattled and refused to drive for us again.

That evening, Lamy and I were in front of our hotel in Shantou, the
big city that’s a couple hours away from Guiyu. We hailed a taxi to
take us to a meet a local scientist who’s studied the effects of e-
waste operations on Guiyu’s children. I had read the studies. Seven
out of ten kids have blood lead levels in the Centers for Disease
Control’s danger zone. Then: There he was again, or so it seemed. The
same plainclothes cop was walking up the hotel driveway. I said, “Hey,
look! Isn’t that him?” Lamy said, “Stop! Now you’re scaring me!” But a
second look confirmed it. It was the same guy, two days later and a
hundred miles away from where we had first seen him. Suddenly, things
seemed serious. All the more so for Lamy who lives and works in Hong
Kong, under the authoritarian cloud of Chinese rule.

Not knowing what else to do, we proceeded with our original plan. We
hopped into a cab and headed across town. The cop jumped into a large
black sedan and followed close behind us. He had seen that we had
noticed him and dropped any pretense that he wasn’t trailing us. Our
taxi driver was a young guy whose hair was bleached at the ends and
who seemed more excited than scared when we told him that we were
being followed. He hit the accelerator, while the sedan fell behind
and got stuck in traffic. We managed to make a U-turn and whooped as
we saw our pursuers watch helplessly as we sped past in the other
direction. A minute later, we stopped congratulating ourselves. There
was a black sedan, a different one, right on our tail.

“I’ve lived in Shantou all my life,” our taxi driver proclaimed. “I
know the back streets. I’ll be able to lose them.” We sped around a
highway ramp and made a quick turn down a side street. The sedan
behind us took the same turn. We cut into an even smaller street and
plowed through a crowd of pedestrians. Three more turns in quick
succession. We came to a stop in an alley and waited. Several minutes
passed. The coast was clear. We made our way out of the neighborhood
back onto a main road. Within seconds, a third black sedan was close
behind us.

Our taxi driver stopped chattering. Lamy said he was probably scared
by the fact that our pursuers had so many vehicles and resources-that
is, they couldn’t be anyone other than a powerful security force. Lamy
was frightened herself. Part of her unease had to do with the fact
that we didn’t even know exactly who was following us. Were they Guiyu
town police or the provincial security services? Could they be agents
of some national intelligence directorate? There was even an off-
chance that they were local Mafiosi, the hired muscle of e-waste
businessmen who wanted to keep outside scrutiny away from their black
market operations. And how much did these people know about us and
our plans? Had they bugged our hotel room or our phones? Anything
seemed possible.

We gave up evasive maneuvers and went to the meeting. In a local
restaurant, while we spoke to the scientist and took notes, the
corners of our eyes tried to keep track of all the plainclothes
security men lounging in the street outside keeping track of us. At
the end of the evening, after being trailed back to our hotel, Lamy
marched straight up to one of the van that had been following us and
motioned for the driver to roll down the window. “Who are you? Why are
you following us?” she demanded. Fearlessly. “We’re going to call the
police if you don’t cut it out!” The driver panicked, had not expected
this. “I wasn’t! It’s not true!” he kept saying, and drove off.

Lamy and I talked late into the night. If we were followed night and
day, how were we going to be able to film this story, to document what
we had seen in Guiyu? The cops could shut us down as soon as our
cameramen started shooting. Was it even worthwhile to bring the rest
of our team to China? And if we were being constantly surveyed, how
could we possibly interview e-waste workers without putting their
lives in danger? Was there a way we could avoid being followed?

I called Scott Pelley, who was on a different shoot in northern
Canada, and discussed the situation with him at length. It was
agonizing. There was a decent chance that he would fly halfway around
the world and that we would not emerge with a story. Finally, we
decided. Though we agreed that there were no guarantees, we knew we
had to give it a try. Lamy and I figured that the only way to lose our
security escort was to leave the province altogether. We had to
convince the authorities that we were done with the place. The next
morning, Lamy flew to Hong Kong to meet the rest of our team. I had a
single entry visa and wouldn’t be able to return if I left the
Mainland. I flew an hour away to the city of Guangzhou, then hopped on
a bus to the city of Shenzhen. These were evasive maneuvers in the

A day later, our entire team gathered in Shenzhen. In addition to me
and Lamy, our full contingent included correspondent Scott Pelley; our
wonderful and efficient associate producer Nicole Young; two exemplary
cameramen, David Lom and Brad Simpson (who is also the CBS News
Beijing bureau chief); and assistant cameraman Jackie Chen. There were
also two non-journalists we’d invited along: Jim Puckett, the founder
of a toxic waste watchdog group called the Basel Action Network; and
Jamie Choi, a specialist in corporate environmental responsibility
with Greenpeace-Beijing. Very early the morning after that, we set off
on the 5-hour drive to the wasteland of Guiyu. Since we were now with
our camera crews, most of what happened next was deftly captured on
videotape. Much of that is in the 60 Minutes story.

We managed to speak with a group of workers in a location far from
Guiyu where, thank goodness, our gathering was not discovered. They
told us about the conditions of their work. They guessed, judging from
the script on the components, that much of the waste came from faraway
English-speaking countries like ours. Later, after we had left the
workers, our vehicles were stopped by the Guiyu police, and we were
brought to City Hall. The mayor prohibited us from filming in his
town. His police escorted us to the city limits.

We returned the next day nonetheless and began committing to
videotape the atrocious scenes we had come to document. Very quickly,
a gang of about a dozen men materialized and started roughing us up,
trying to grab the cameras that had recorded their dirty secret. Swinging
a tripod from side to side, I fought off two men who had grabbed either
end of David Lom’s camera. These men were enraged. One of them
clambered atop a mound of dirt, shouting, and threw fist-sized
batteries at us. Our situation was all the more perilous because our
drivers had driven away, fearing that they would be beaten up or that
their cars would be wrecked by the gang.

As a group, we walked away from the recycling area toward the center
of town. We were followed by men on motorbikes and in cars who waved
taxis away and beckoned us to into their vehicles so we could all
return to the mayor’s office. “Come with us. You’re not safe here,”
said these men who had just attacked us. In the end, we waited them
out. Scott came up with the brilliant and effective line that if they
took us back to the mayor’s office, we would consider it an arrest and
let the Foreign Ministry in Beijing know what had happened. “Oh no,
you’re not being arrested!” they assured us nervously. Suddenly, not
only were we free to leave the town, but the mayor and his men gave us
a lift for the two-hour ride to Shantou.

Somehow we had managed to escape with only a few scrapes and
bruises. Nicole Young, our AP, suffered the gravest injury: a sizable florid
bruise on her hip where she had pressed the tripod that a large man
tried to wrest from her. Most important, we got away with the tapes we
had shot. We had only been able to film for about 10 or 15 minutes
before we were attacked. But the wasteland was so awful, even that was

A day earlier, the workers we had secretly interviewed summed up their
experience of the wasteland. They had been peasant farmers, unable to
eke a living from the land. Now they spent their days melting circuit
boards, burning their hands, enduring headaches and shortness of
breath. They realized the work was hazardous, but felt they had little
choice. They were, as Lamy said, utterly vulnerable-both to the toxic
work and to the gangs who run this place. “The people in Guiyu have no
consideration for laws,” one of them said when asked why they
preferred to remain anonymous. “They treat people who come here to
work like thieves. And if someone from another province gets beaten
up, nobody in the government will take care of them. It’s totally
okay. You give a bit of money to the officials, and everything is
taken care of. The people there are very savage-like. And we don’t
want to be hurt.”

BY Luca Gabino / 9/2007

For years, I’ve heard fables and legends about a mysterious cemetery
somewhere in China. I heard whispers on the internet and from Chinese
friends about mountains of broken computers, heaps of chips,
motherboards, and printer cartridges virtually filling the streets of
a South Asian village. But it was kept quiet by the notoriously tight-
lipped Chinese government. It was kind of like the elusive elephant
graveyard, but with technological offal and guarded by mean
communists. I decided that I would make it my mission to go there.

I slowly discovered that 80 percent of all the electronic toxic waste
collected around the world ends up in Guiyu, a small town in the
southern China province of Guangdong. The town imports more than 1
million tons of this stuff every year. Almost 90 percent of Hong
Kong’s computers end up there, but 60 percent of the total waste
originates in the USA. The exact location of Guiyu has been kept
secret by the authorities, but I already knew that Shenzhen was the
biggest city in Guangdong and that it was just an hour and a half away
from Hong Kong.

Even with Hong Kong being Chinese again, we had to go through customs
to get into Shenzhen. We boarded the bus to Cheng Dian, guessing it
was the nearest city to Guiyu. On the bus the situation got even
creepier when the hostess pulled out a video camera and started
filming each passenger for “security reasons.” I was the only
Westerner on board. During the three-hour bus ride the same advert
looped on the in-bus televisions. It showed Shenzhen as a city of fun,
happiness, and luxury. Looking out the window at the gray factories,
the sea of cement, and the columns of smoke I had to ask myself if any
of the other passengers were falling for it. Toward the end of the
journey I found a university student who spoke a little English.
Taking a chance, I asked her where Guiyu was. She acted quite
perplexed at first and replied that no such place existed. But I could
tell she knew something, so I begged her until she scribbled
directions on a piece of paper.

We arrived in Cheng Dian at night and I took a room in a cheap hotel.
I spent the next day trying to find someone who would tell us more
about Guiyu. The locals denied its existence. Fortunately I found a
taxi driver who was willing to take me there for the relative mountain
of cash that is 40 euros. I handed him the directions that the girl on
the train had written for me, and we set off in almost total darkness.
The driver eventually dropped me off at the only hotel in the
proximity of Guiyu. From the car, all I could see was a big white
block of cement surrounded by garbage. I stepped out into the most
surreal landscape I have ever seen.

It was a sea of garbage. The heaps of trash began accumulating next to
the hotel walls and did not stop for as far as the eye could see. The
whole town was a construction site, with the old wooden barracks being
replaced by unfinished houses. You can still spot Guiyu’s rural past
in the barracks that once clearly constituted most of the town, but
the e-waste economy required more accommodation for the 200,000
migrant workers who moved to Guiyu in the past six years. Everywhere
around us people were busy carrying or unloading computer parts. Huge
piles of outer shells lay next to construction sites, layers and
layers of motherboards and CD players were dumped in the courtyards,
and thousands of bags of chips spilled inside and outside, forming
massive mountains between the tiny dwellings. Children were dividing
tiny chips by color in the street.

Adults were grilling circuit boards on barbecue grills. They melted
the soldering and removed the chips, and then the women would
separate the parts in different bags and wash them with water. After
the circuit boards were soaked in acid to recuperate bits of gold, they
were finally either burned or buried.

I witnessed kids between the ages of five and ten working in barracks
with no ventilation, with people all around them burning everything
from the metal components of computers to wires to extract the copper.
When the PVC and the brominated flame retardant around the wires
burn, they emit high levels of chlorinated dioxins and furans, two of the
most persistent organic pollutants. As a result, the local river is so
contaminated that the levels of acidity are almost total. The water
contains an estimated 2,400 times the recommended levels of lead, and
it’s not hard to notice: The river is literally black from the toner
of printer cartridges and from washing the burned motherboards. The
toner contains carbon black, a known carcinogen, but the locals wash
themselves, their clothes, and their food with this water. It’s so
toxic that even boiling it doesn’t come close to purifying it. Above
the water, the air was thick with smoke. Around it, the land is so
irreparably poisoned that nothing can grow. All the food and drinking
water is imported from out of town.

On my third day in Guiyu, I managed to get to the main dump. The
mountains of computer parts I had seen so far were nothing compared
with what awaited. The roads were in a constant state of traffic jam
with trucks, motorbikes, and even mules carrying parts to be
“recycled.” It was hell. Thick smoke hung like storm clouds. It hurt
to breathe.

As I stopped to take pictures, a furious woman came out of nowhere,
charging me with her broom, trying to grab my camera. Not wanting to
cause trouble in an illegal toxic-waste dump in southern China, I ran
back to the car. She followed, waving her broom around like a baseball
bat, banging on the windows. She broke the windshield. She was blind
with rage, trying to break the remaining bits of glass off with her
bare hands. When she saw she couldn’t do it she stuck her broom
through the hole she’d made and started smacking me in the head.

Then the police showed up to—I naively thought—rescue me from the
crazy woman. I was very wrong. They ordered me to wait in the car
while they interrogated all the witnesses except for the woman, whom
they let calmly walk back to her barrack. People crowded around the
car and stared at me as if I were an exotic animal in a cage. After an
hour the police told my driver to follow them to the station, where I
was interrogated for an hour with the aid of a translator. I told them
I was a university student on vacation. I had previously hid the
better rolls of film, so I could hand them the ones that were no good
to me. They let me go back to my hotel, chauffered by the poor driver
whose car had been beaten up by the crazy old woman.

A few days later there was a knock at my hotel door. It was the cops
again. They took me back to the station, where I was questioned by six
cops. I thought they were going to beat the shit out of me. After an
hour of repeating myself, I convinced them that I was merely a student
on holiday. They believed me! That is, until they got the owner of the
hotel to show them the ID card I’d used to sign in. Under job
description, it said “photographer.” Whoops. The interrogation started
again. I played it dumb, hung my head, and told them I was just a
silly student who takes amateur pictures and has no idea what is going
on in their town. Three hours later they finally released me and I
hightailed it right the fuck out of Guiyu. I will never go back.

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