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Brislen on Tech: Rarely seen

Paul Brislen, Editor. 12 March 2021, 12:56 pm

It must be about ten years now since the receptionist at Vodafone called me and said "there's a protest group here to see you".

I checked my calendar but no, I could see no entry for "protest group" in my day's activities, so I enquired as to how many there were.

"About a dozen," she replied and so I asked if she would show them through to the waiting area and I would be right down.

One hot chocolate later (each, that is - we didn't skimp) I found out they were protesting about coltan, a rare earth mineral that is a vital component in mobile phone technology and which is mined largely in the Congo region predominantly by children in absolutely appalling working conditions under threats of violence against both themselves and their family members.

Rare Earth

I was able to say that we did not source any coltan from the Democratic Republic of Congo because Vodafone Group had signed up to an accord on this matter some years earlier and could tell me that we absolutely had no connection with the rebel groups and what became known as Africa's digital equivalent of the blood diamond trade.

Coltan is only one of a dozen rare earth minerals which are suddenly in hot demand from our insatiable appetite for electronic goods. As everything from tea kettles to air conditioning units to cars and bicycles get chips in them, the demand for these minerals has exploded and unfortunately so to has the abuse of those who must work the black seams and then refine the products.

The DRC is one of the major exporters of these minerals but is far from alone. The US, Australia, Canada, India, Russia and South Africa all have significant deposits in readily-accessible locations, but the vast bulk of the world's supply - around 80% in 2017 - comes from China, specifically the Inner Mongolia region.

China of course is also home to a great deal of the world's manufacturing capacity which marries up nicely with the supply of raw product but does also lead to questions about working conditions in the mines and is yet another sore point in the relationship between China and the western countries.

As has been reported elsewhere, China has apparently considered whether or not it can affect production of US fighter jets by denying it access to key minerals, perhaps in retaliation for the US moves to block Chinese companies like Huawei from being involved in the next generation of mobile phone networks and submarine cables. China denies any such actions but it is clear that control of the spice minerals means control of the digital world in a way not really considered by many.

Newsroom's political affairs editor Sam Sachdeva has an excellent piece this week on moves to encourage a western nation's annexation of Greenland, a country that may very well have huge deposits of rare earth minerals ready for exploitation. A London-based think tank has proposed a "Five Eyes" consortium (based on the Cold War anti-espionage collective of the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) that would head off any Chinese interest in Greenland and ensure a steady supply of minerals for future needs.

New Zealand has not expressed much interest in securing Greenland's natural bounty for our own purposes, possibly because we may very well have our own supply. A 2018 report to the then Minister Megan Woods suggests there are 20 sites around New Zealand that may be happy hunting grounds for rare earth minerals, including our black sand beaches on the west coast. Research continues, but as we move away from mining for oil deposits, perhaps a new door is opening - one that leads to large-scale deposits in readily accessible parts of the country. And perhaps we might be able to mine these minerals in a more ethical way, and my friends in the lobby that day won't be disappointed with New Zealand's stance on coltan.

EDIT: Hat tip to reader Matthas for spotting the deliberate (ahem) mistake with the list of Five Eyes participants. 


Comments

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Clark Thomborson 13 March 2021, 10:47 am

Paul, for many years I have really enjoyed reading your "Brislen on Tech" column, thank you for this! This week's column was an exception, because you were apparently much more intent on managing PR for Vodafone than on reporting accurately about the IT industry's use of rare earths that were obtained from unethical or unmonitored suppliers. Your vague reference to "an accord on this matter" didn't convince me -- and did it really convince you? -- that Vodafone isn't using any of the tantalum derived from coltan mined unethically in the DRC.

If Vodafone has indeed made a public statement on this matter, I certainly can't find it. Can you? All I can find today is a 2017 statement which acknowledged that there was still plenty of room for improvement in how Vodafone avoids supporting, through its inadequately monitored supply chains, the mining of unethically-sourced cobalt from the DRC (www.vodafone.com/content/da...). And I do see that Vodafone has signed up to the RMI; but their website is silent on "coltan" (www.responsiblemineralsinit...). Possibly: Vodafone is now insisting that the supply-chain for the tantalum capacitors in its equipment is reliant solely on coltan sourced from CFSI-compliant suppliers? (www.responsiblemineralsinit...) If so I think *that* would be worthy of a press release from Vodafone... but please please desist from using your bully-pulpit in techblog.nz as a PR venue for Vodafone.

Paul Brislen 13 March 2021, 11:02 am

Hi Clark, thanks for your comments. As I said, it was at least a decade ago when the protest group came to see me, and a quick look at LinkedIn suggests it was probably 2009.

At the time, Vodafone was engaged with the UK government over "conflict minerals" and I think if you search for that you'll find more detail.

A cursory look back at sustainability reports from that time finds this in the 2010 report (www.vodafone.com/content/da...):

"We have also strengthened our approach to trace and eliminate conflict minerals in our own supply chain. In previous years,

suppliers producing over 85% of Vodafone branded devices have provided written assurances that they do not use tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo."

Tantalum is another name for coltan.

Matthias Otto 16 March 2021, 9:56 pm

Hi Paul, like Clark I always enjoyed your commentary and opinion (since way back in the ComputerWorld days), and I still do after this post ;-)

Was it tongue 'n cheek, a slip-up, or just PC to replace NZ with Hong Kong in the list of 5-eye countries? (Quote: "...the Cold War anti-espionage collective of the UK, US, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong")

While some bureau in Hong Kong may have played a surveillance role after WWII, all my research tells me NZ was, and definitely is, a full member of the 5-eye alliance.

Given the message of this article (annex Greenland, huh?) and its NZ readership, this distinction is significant, methinks?!

Paul Brislen 17 March 2021, 7:37 am

Well that's... unusual. I wonder how that managed to sneak through our rigorous fact checking protocols.

Thanks, Matthias. Adjustments made!


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