Dark side of the mine: journalist unearths human cost of smartphones in DRC

·4 min read

War correspondent Karim Ben Khelifa has created an augmented reality app that takes users to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country of crippling poverty despite its immense natural wealth. Young boys and men are forced to work for armed rebels and shady intermediaries who control the mines where precious minerals for our smartphones and other electronic goods are found.

To visualise the Seven Grams experience, you need an iPhone and a headset. This sounds like a paradox when you realise the journalist is denouncing the very practices that went into making the phone, but it’s part of the plan.

You press start and an image of a mobile phone appears. When you click on it, it explodes into tiny fragments that appear to float in the air. Then a spinning globe appears, right in front of your eyes: welcome to the world of augmented reality.

From, there the journalist’s voice then tells you all about the seven grams of tiny precious minerals that are needed to make your phone function and, more importantly, where they come from and how they got there.

The Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa was in the DRC reporting on a different project in 2015 when he had an opportunity to visit the mines in the east of the country.

He took some black and white pictures there, which can be seen on the walls of the Radar gallery, as part of the 2021 Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award exhibition series.

Inside the Seven Grams app, Khelifa introduces us to Chance, who, like his name suggests, is one of the lucky ones. He was just a young boy when he was forcibly recruited as a child solider for one of the local rebel groups (Mai-Mai) in the eastern DRC. However, he managed to escape.

Chance’s story is narrated using animated scenes, based on black and white drawings originally done in charcoal by the artist TT Hernandez. Khelifa says the medium adds a “texture" that reminds us of the minerals.

"It allows us to tell a story with a lot of sensitivity,” he says – and although it hints at violence, it’s nothing compared to what Chance experienced in real life.

Just like his virtual reality experience The Enemy, looking at both sides of a war, Khelifa invites the viewer to literally "step into" the issue and understand it from a 360 degree perspective.

No protection

There are thousands more like Chance who are stuck behind, working in the illegally run mines – sprawling, desolate places, with makeshift shacks built on the hillside.

Boys and men spend 12 hours a day digging with their hands to find the minerals that make smartphones vibrate, screens tactile and batteries more powerful.

They are covered in dust for a daily salary no more than the price of two bottles of water.

On the walls of the gallery, we see displays of rain boots, torn pants that haven’t been washed for months, a rusty machete, a sack made of hessian. Nothing more to protect the workers from the poisonous dust.

“I was really trying to go from the digital to physical, and with this it brings some kind of reality,” Khelifa told RFI, explaining why he wanted to bring these flimsy everyday articles from a hidden hell before the eyes of the world.

Nearby, perspex cases line the walls containing chunks of tungsten, cobalt, cassiterite (a tin oxide mineral) and a rock with a tiny sliver of gold. All elements that large companies are scrambling to secure for their production lines, at the lowest cost.

The mines are controlled by competing rebel groups, who sell the minerals through a complex web of markets and intermediaries, ending up in the factories of multinationals like Apple, Samsung and Huawei, as well as many car companies.

In his app Khelifa asks us how is it possible that the DRC, with mineral resources estimated to be worth around 24 trillion US dollars, can only be 175th out of 181 on the Human Development Index?

A US geological survey from 2019 showed that the DRC produced 100,000 tonnes of cobalt, compared with Russia's 6,100 tonnes, followed by 3,000 in Canada.

Call to action

Although he says he’d love to see this kind of app used in schools in the future, to build awareness, Khelifa wants to do more than just educate the public. He wants them to act.

“I definitely wanted to teach people, but I also want to give them a solution, not just tell them that there is a problem with the smartphone and electronics in general,” he says.

By revealing business practices, consumers can choose to buy products that come from manufacturers who do not buy their metals from illegal mines, and who choose to recycle rather than produce more raw material.

Now you can’t say you didn’t know.

*The phone app Seven Grams (in English and French) is an augmented reality experience by Karim Ben Khelifa, co-developed by LucidRealities, France TV Lab, POV Spark, and Think-Film. It can be downloaded for free with Google store and Apple play.

The exhibition Seven Grams is part of the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy War Correspondents Awards, on display at Le Radar gallery in Bayeux until 31 October 2021.

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