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The Virginia Quarterly Review

Picture Info

Miner in a burning coal mine, Jharia, India.

Source article

Virginia Quarterly Review

Published By

Dr. Dick van der Wateren


Environment, Metals, Mining, Poisoning, Mobile phones

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e-readers don't use dead trees, but miners pay the price

04.03.2011, Age: 3889 days

A special issue of Virginia Quarterly Review investigates the consequences of the growing use of e-readers, smartphones and iPads. Good for the trees, bad for the miners, who dig the rare earth metals that are used in the electronic components.

In his editorial for the special issue,The Price of the Paperless Revolution, Ted Genoways writes about gold mining in Suriname:

"Gravel piles, some more than ten feet high, were heaped all around. We scrambled up one to see giant pools filled with stagnant water turned emerald by contaminants. The Surinamese government estimates that more than one hundred fifty square miles of its virgin rainforest have been leveled and more than three-quarters of the native fish species extirpated by such mining - and for what?

The answer surprised me. Though a high percentage of illegally mined gold still goes toward making jewelry, the real growth market is in the manufacture of modern electronics-computer CPUs, card edge connectors, USB cables. And it's not just gold. There's lead and tin in circuit boards and solder, copper in wiring and integrated circuits, lithium in rechargeable batteries, and nickel and iron in the structural components and bodies of most computers, televisions, and cell phones."

Modern communication requires large quantities of these metals and rare earths. Yet, while replacing paper books, newspapers and magazines by their digital counterparts arguably leads to a decrease in the use of trees, it comes at a price. The mining of these materials puts a heavy burden on the environment as well as on the health of the people involved.

Gold mining poses a threat to tropical forests and the extraction of gold from the sediments uses mercury, which poisons rivers and groundwater. Roma families in refugee camps in Kosovo suffer from rotting teeth and diseases as a result of lead poisoned groundwater. Miners work under dangerous conditions, risking their lives for extremely low wages. In Congo some of the mines are almost slave camps, where the armed guards keep the miners inside.

On the positive side of the balance are the vast salt lakes in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Afghanistan, which contain lithium, used in the lithium-ion batteries of mobile devices. These resources may mean wealth for the populations of these countries.

2010 saw the premiere of Blood in the Mobile, a documentary by Danish director Frank Piasecki Poulsen. From the synopsis: "Phones are financing war in DR Congo".

"The main part of minerals used to produce cell phones are coming from the mines in the Eastern DR Congo. The Western World is buying these so-called conflict minerals and thereby finances a civil war that, according to human rights organisations, has been the bloodiest conflict since World War II: During the last 15 years the conflict has cost the lives of more than 5 million people and 300.000 women have been raped. The war will continue as long as armed groups can finance their warfare by selling minerals."

"Blood in Mobile is a film about our responsibility for the conflict in the Congo and about corporate social responsibility."

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