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Demand For Smartphones Takes A Human Toll Abroad


If you own a smartphone or a tablet, there's a good chance that inside the device is tin from Indonesia. Tin is used to make the solder that binds metal parts together. The explosion in demand for smart devices has driven up the demand for tin. But that demand has a human toll.

Reporter Cam Simpson traveled to an Indonesian island where nearly all the country's tin is mined. And a story about what he found was published today in Bloomberg Businessweek. Cam Simpson joins us from the Bloomberg studios in London. Welcome.

CAM SIMPSON: Hi. Thanks. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: So to start, put this mining industry in context. Where is Indonesia's tin going, and how big a part of the global market is it?

SIMPSON: Well, Indonesia is one of the two largest producers of tin in the world when it comes to mine production. Essentially about 70 percent of all the tin mined in the last decade has come equally from Indonesia and China. And of all the tin mined in the world, about almost half of it goes to solder that's used in electronics. So in Indonesia, the tin comes almost completely from one little province, the Bangka-Belitung Province, and that's two little islands in the sea beds off their shore.

CORNISH: Describe what the tin mining operation looks like there.

SIMPSON: You know, on the land, about 98 percent of the tin that's produced comes from small-scale mines, and these are just - they're pits across the island, literally thousands and thousands of pits. Most of it's done manually by hand. I mean, you have deep pits, sometimes 40-feet deep, steep, sheer walls. And you have small groups of men, and quite often boys, working in these pits, just scrapping away at the walls by hand. And unfortunately, it's incredibly dangerous.

CORNISH: Now, the Indonesian government does regulate that industry. There are illegal and legal mines. Talk about what the conditions are in these mines, the differences.

SIMPSON: There is, on the ground, very little distinction because, you know, while there are regulations, they're virtually completely unenforced on the island itself. And you have - the world's biggest integrated tin mining company is based on the island, and it relies almost completely for its onshore production from about 4,000 small-scale mines.

And they look a bit safer because, you know, they're terraced, they're cut. But what we found was they work next to thousands upon thousands of unpermitted sites. And the companies' subcontractors are buying from miners in the dangerous pits. I mean, it all flows seamlessly every day into the global supply chain, whether it's ostensibly illegal or legal and it flows from the island itself and from just literally, you know, thousands upon thousands of illegal floating pontoon tin lines in the sea that are dredging the coast off the shore. I mean, this is just an incredible sight.

CORNISH: What have been the consequences for this industry on the island?

SIMPSON: The industry was unleashed, really, within the last decade on the island when the island got self-rule as its own province. You know, the locals wanted control of their own natural resources. And who can blame them for that? But it's done in a completely uncontrolled way.

So the consequences have been extraordinary. I mean, first off, these dangerous pits - the walls literally just collapse and bury people alive. In one week, while I was on Bangka Island, there were six men and actually a boy, a 15-year-old, who were buried alive in these pit collapses. While I was there last year, it averaged about one a week, one miner's death a week. The year before that, it was half that. So the rate had gone up significantly.

The other consequences are just really far-reaching. I mean, habitats for fish are being destroyed, endangered coral reefs are being buried and destroyed. You know, people have been living literally on the sea and making their living from fishing for hundreds - if not thousands - of years.

And the environment inside the island is also just completely devastated. I mean, there are thousands upon thousands of these pits, but many of them are full of water from tropical rains and from the mining. And, as a consequence, this is one of the worst - if not the worst - malarial area in all of Indonesia. It's one of only two provinces where malaria is endemic.

CORNISH: Cam, you actually went to the biggest mining company in the world in Indonesia with what you found. And how did they respond?

SIMPSON: Well, you know, it was interesting because what we found was that they sort of had what seemed like a don't ask, don't tell policy about where the tin was coming from. They told me that they did not have any provisions in their contracts for their subcontractors barring them from buying tin from dangerous sites. But they said they were going to do that in the future, that they were going to add those provisions when they rewrote their contracts. So that, at least, appears to be promising.

CORNISH: We reported this week on an audit of working conditions at Foxconn in China, which manufactures most of the iPads and iPhones in the world. And it said that working conditions are improving. Could that trickle down the supply chain to improve things for the people of Bangka?

SIMPSON: I mean, we'll have to see. You know, Foxconn has reacted in a substantial way. Apple has certainly reacted in a very public way. How far down the supply chain that goes, I mean, I don't know. You know, what's interesting about this is these are the guys with the shovels and the buckets who are literally at the very bottom of the supply chain. And what I sort of found all the way through was a lot of people, you know, shrugging their shoulders.

CORNISH: Cam Simpson is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. His new story focuses on the human toll of Indonesia's tin mining industry. Cam, thank you for talking with us.

SIMPSON: It's been a great pleasure. Thanks so much.



ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.