According to a recent update on Apple’s Supplier Responsibility page, the consumer electronics giant has initiated a “fact-finding visit” to Indonesia’s Bangka Island. The inquiry follows consumer outcry stemming from an awareness campaign by Friends of the Earth. The UK-based environmental non-profit alleged in a July 8 posting to its website that Apple was utilizing tin from Bangka Island, where the mining of raw materials has “been linked to the destruction of tropical forests, coral reefs and fishermen's livelihoods.”
Bangka Island has long been known for its abundance of precious metals. After the Dutch colonized Indonesia in the 19th century, cheap Chinese laborers and indigenous people were put to the task of digging mines. That practice continues today due to the high demand for consumer electronics. The tin that modern Bangka Island miners collect, in the form of cassiterite, is used as solder in some of the industry’s most popular smartphones and tablets.
“Indonesia's national tin corporation, PT Timah, supplies companies such as Samsung directly, as well as solder makers Chernan and Shenmao, which in turn supply Foxconn (which manufactures many Apple products). Chernan has also supplied Samsung, Sony and LG. So it is highly likely that the smartphone or tablet you use has Bangkanese tin in it,” said The Guardian.
Tin miners, often working solo or in very small groups, make roughly $15 a day for incredibly dangerous physical labor. Many work in deep pits, where collapses and landslides can bury miners alive. Activists claim that this method results in 100-150 deaths each year. The lush forests around each mine must be bulldozed, leaving visible scars on the once pristine tropical landscape.
Others operate illegally at sea, using suction hoses to pull cassiterite from the sea floor. The disruption caused by this form of seabed mining has caused immense damage to offshore fishing stocks. Local fishermen have protested en masse, claiming that they must now go more than double the usual distance from shore in order to catch fish and shrimp – as far as 17 miles to catch “big fish.”
To raise awareness about Bangka Island tin and its widespread prevalence in sought-after gadgets, Friends of the Earth staged an “undercover” campaign, attaching small green tags to Apple products at retail outlets around the globe. The tags read “Do I trash forests?” followed by the social media hashtag #makeitbetter. Friends of the Earth say that its campaign has yielded 24,000 signatures from concerned consumers who want Apple to come clean about its usage of Bangkanese tin.
Apple’s chief rival, Samsung, has already admitted to having tin from Bangka Island tied up in its supply chain. According to The Verge, “[Samsung] also said it had funded an investigation and pledged to take action.”
The official word from Apple is that the company has “initiated an EICC working group focused on this issue, and we are helping to fund a new study on mining in the region so we can better understand the situation.”
In an interview by The Guardian last year, a miner who was severely injured after being buried alive in a mining pit collapse told the newspaper, “My accident was a small sacrifice to give happiness to people in the world, to give them phones and electronics.”
The question remains: If Samsung and Apple abandon Bangka, how else will the miners provide for their families?