Columbite-tantalite — Coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When refined, Coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, computers, iPads, flat screen TV’s, pagers and many other electronics. The recent technology boom caused the price of Coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia, Compaq, Dell, HP, Ericson, and Sony struggled to meet demand.
Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping away dirt from the surface in order to get to the Coltan underground. The workers then slosh water and mud around in large washtubs, allowing the Coltan to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight. A good worker can produce one kilogram of Coltan a day.
Working conditions for Coltan miners are severe, and at times deadly. Militiamen armed with AK-47s force laborers, including children as young as eleven, to work long hours each day, and collectors often cheat miners out of their profits. Coltan is extracted in a ‘craft’ manner, using small tools available locally, such as spades, hoes, and iron bars. In some circumstances, the use of explosives is common resulting often in a high death toll among the diggers, soldiers, and the local community either from the explosives themselves or associated respiratory problems. Add to this the danger of landslides and collapsing mines, and the picture is bleak. But the working conditions of Coltan miners are not the only problem.
The global demand for Coltan fuels a bloody civil war in central Africa; one that has claimed six million lives to date. A UN report claims that all parties involved in the Congolese civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. The multimillion-dollar trade of Congolese Coltan and other natural resources by foreign armies, rebels, and militias fuels the conflict by motivating armed groups to wage war, and by providing them with cash to do so. There are reports that forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are involved in smuggling Coltan from Congo, using the revenues generated from the high price of Coltan to sustain their efforts in the war. By one estimate, the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of Coltan, even though no Coltan is mined in Rwanda. All countries involved in the war deny exploiting Congo’s natural resources.
The Enough Project, Global Witness, UN reports, and others have documented extraordinary human rights abuses associated with the incredibly lucrative mining industry. “The general use of violence against communities includes forced labor, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, extortion, and killings by armed groups to oppress and control civilians,” reports the Enough Project.
In the context of the Congolese war in which warlords use terror as an essential weapon to ensure control of regions where international companies mine for valuable metals, sexual violence is especially horrendous. Competing militias rape in order either to drive communities out of contested areas or else as a means of controlling or subjugating those living in the areas they control.
The impact of Coltan mining on biodiversity and soil and water quality is devastating. Much Coltan is minded near national parks, and some workers rely on poaching to eat. Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the mountain gorilla, has suffered particularly from Coltan mining. Widespread hunting has driven lowland gorillas and elephants to the brink of extinction, and massive deforestation from mines and airstrips as well as water pollution from mine tailings, has killed off all edible wildlife in the park. The ecosystem has been effectively plundered, according to the UNEP report.
So the next time you think of upgrading you cell phone or replace you old TV with a plasma screen, or make the leap to an iPad, the new devices will not come with a label the reads, “Warning! This device was made with raw materials from Central Africa that are non-renewable, were mined in inhumane conditions, and then sold to fund a bloody war of occupation. Moreover, the device has caused massive soil and water contamination and the virtual elimination of endangered species. Enjoy.”
(The information in this article was drawn from the ABC news report, “What is Coltan,” by Imtiyaz Delawala; The ICE Case study: “Congo War and the Role of Coltan,” by Natalie D. Ware; and the book, “Resisting Structural Evil,” by Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda).