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Gerry ChidiacAs the Christmas season approaches, it’s important to be aware of the power we hold in how we spend our money.

As consumers, we invest in products we believe will serve us best. Companies may try to hide information about their products but eventually the truth comes out. Consumer advocacy is powerful in a free-market economy and we’ve all benefited.

American lawyer Ralph Nader, for example, took on the auto industry in the 1960s over the safety of their vehicles. Most buyers were unaware of the often deadly flaws in the products they were buying. This changed as Nader’s movement reached public consciousness. Since then, carmakers have competed to produce the best and safest vehicles possible, because that’s what consumers demand.

In the 1990s, the world was alerted to the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and how the illegal trade of diamonds contributed to the suffering. People of conscience wanted to feel good about the beautiful engagement rings they were giving and receiving. They insisted the diamond industry regulate itself to give consumers assurance they weren’t fuelling a deadly conflict. The demand for “blood diamonds” shrank and warlords in these countries lost the funds to continue fighting. While this movement was not without its flaws, the international attention aided in establishing peace in the region.

Today, the world is largely unaware of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or how it’s being fuelled by consumer appetite.

More than five and a half million people have died as a result of the conditions this fighting is creating in the eastern region of DRC. The rape of women, children and men has been used to subjugate and control the population. Numerous peace accords have failed.

Very similar to the illegal trade of diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the extraction and black-market sale of gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten (used in our cellphones and other electronics) fuel the war in the DRC.

Since 2008, however, the Enough Project has been promoting the Raise Hope for Congo campaign to increase awareness and organize consumer advocacy, to hold corporations accountable for their use of “conflict minerals.”

Because of the nature of the international mineral market, it can be extremely difficult to trace products from the DRC, but it can be done. So Raise Hotantalum,pe for Congo is tracking and reporting which corporations are trying to avoid using these minerals. They published their first findings in 2010.

Today, universities and other schools, municipal governments and individual consumers are becoming part of the conflict-free movement, adjusting their purchases accordingly.

The impact has been extraordinary. While the conflict continues in the DRC, significant progress is being made. Some companies have made major efforts to respond to consumer demand and shown themselves to be responsible corporate citizens.

Raise Hope for Congo has also published a new list, just in time for the Christmas shopping season, to let consumers know which electronics companies and jewelry manufacturers we may want to support and which we may want to petition.

The issues in the DRC can seem overwhelming and we may want to throw our hands in the air.

But in our efforts to be agents for positive change, we need to remember the profound words of author and activist Helen Keller: “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I can still do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.

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