I have horrible eyesight. My prescription is close to negative six, which means I can’t read text that’s farther away than five inches from my face. When I was about seven years old, I finally visited the optometrist. I will never forget coming home with my first pair of glasses and seeing clearly with corrected vision for the first time. I walked into my bedroom and there was carpet: textured, patterned carpet. Maybe it’s hard to imagine, but I was fascinated. I sat down and touched it, stuck the tips of my fingers in, mashed it around. How could I have not noticed the floor that I walked and played on every day? The fact that I wasn’t aware of this minor detail for so long was shocking and strange.

Does your vision need correcting?

You probably have a cell phone on you right now. Or maybe you’re reading this article from your laptop. Take a look at it. What would you say if I told you that some of the metal in your device could be linked to the murder of a family, a young man losing a leg or the rape of a 10-year-old girl?

Here’s a pair of glasses.

You may have heard about the “blood diamonds” of West Africa. What you may not know is that there’s a similar issue with so-called “conflict minerals.” The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in materials such as tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, which are integral for the production of cell phones, laptops and other technology. The Congo has been war-torn for more than 15 years. Those who committed mass-genocide in neighboring Rwanda joined the armed group FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, in English) in the Congo’s eastern province of Kivu. The Congolese national military, which had absorbed another former rebel group, has had to fight the FDLR remaining in eastern Congo. However, according to the watchdog group Global Witness, the Congolese military has actually been working in tandem with the FDLR to harvest these minerals and finance their respective operations.

So the long and short of it is this: The Congo has an abundance of natural resources, a fact that several armed groups have exploited to the point of causing even more bloodshed as they collect the spoils. Global Witness has estimated that around 5.4 million people have been killed in the last 10 years as a result of this situation, and the country has been additionally dubbed by the U.N. as “the rape capital of the world,” with the number of rapes estimated to be colossal — in the hundred thousands.

Death and rape aside, it’s impossible to project the statistics for how many people whose lives have been displaced or irrevocably altered by this prolonged conflict. One example is the countless men who work in the very dangerous crude mines. They’re either coerced under threat of violence or are simply natives to the region and are attempting to make a living. All are subject to heavy taxes by the armed groups that control the area, and severe injuries are a common occurrence.

The recent Financial Reform Act signed by President Barack Obama included a mandate that companies must provide information on whether their materials were obtained from a conflict region. This transparency is a step in the right direction, though it’s probably going to be difficult to track every gram of conflict material – which often switches hands as many as seven times, as stated by Time magazine in July 2009. Nevertheless, it’s necessary that electronics companies take responsibility for their merchandise and audit their supply chains so that consumers have the option of buying conflict-free products.

The University obviously has a lot of great technological resources. As such, our campus should take the initiative of putting in place policies to purchase conflict-free equipment. We are now able to see the carpet, and it’s something we walk on every day. Many of us break or lose our phones because we can just buy a new one, not thinking that the new device could possibly, as stated by Congolese Bishop Nicolas Djomo, contain “a drop of Congolese blood.” It’s not only essential that the origin of these tainted materials become increasingly transparent over time, but that we also pay attention to this information, so that as students and as consumers, we can make mindful decisions in the future.

Vanessa Rychlinski can be reached at vanrych@umich.edu.

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