Coltan Update

In March of 2015 I wrote an article for this blog entitled, “The Curse of Coltan,” which has since received many hits. I thought it opportune, therefore, to write a new article, furthering the discussion on where things are up to.

First of all, to recap, Coltan stands for Columbite Tantelite, an ore containing a mix of niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is an element on the periodic table, in the transition coltanmetal section, with the atomic number of 73. It was discovered in the 19th Century, and its unusual characteristics led to its increased use in the late 20th and 21st Century.

Tantalum’s primary 21st century use comes in the creation of capacitors. Tantalum capacitors have an extremely high capacitance package in a small volume – meaning that it is perfect for shrinking our electronic devices. It is the key element in mobile phones, DVD players, laptops, hard drives, and the PS3 – essentially almost any piece of home or industrial electronic equipment. The average cell phone has about 40 milligrams of tantalum inside it. Not a large amount, but one that adds up quickly due to the high demand for mobile phones.

Where the problem lies is that the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] (formerly Zaire) is extremely rich in Coltan reserves. With rebel warlords mining and selling Coltan Congolese warto finance the civil war, with the majority of illegally mined Coltan sold to China, the second Congo war has claimed over 5.4 million lives. It is sobering to consider that this makes it the bloodiest single conflict since World War II.

It is estimated that 2-million child-slaves work from sunrise to sunset to dig Coltan by hand from the soil. Every day hundreds of thousands of Congolese child-slaves are forced child_labor_-_coltato crawl into underground mines on their hands and knees to dig for the essential raw material to make the electronic gadgets listed above.

Other ramifications concern the illegal mining of Coltan in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, both extremely rich sources of Coltan. This mining activity is driving out endangered gorillas in these protected areas. Due to the distance from home or camps, miners often kill and eat gorillas they come across in order to survive, further endangering the animals.

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information I came upon lately is that in 2008, Australia was the world’s top producer of tantalite (30% of supplies), followed by the DRC (21%), Brazil (14%), China (8%) and Ethiopia (8%). Australia’s production all came Wodginafrom the Wodgina Tantalum mine in Western Australia, which closed in 2008 due to the impact on prices of the Global Financial Crisis and cheap Coltan from Central Africa. The mine reopened in 2011 and the closed again in 2012, due to a softening global demand.

An important point of clarification is that the continuing conflict and violence in the DRC is not only about Coltan and other natural resources, and so won’t be fully resolved by changes in the international Congolese Coltan trade. A long history of several complex inter-related factors such as ethnicity, land ownership, citizenship, governance and regional politics all contribute to the conflict.

But developing of governance in the mining sector in the DRC is a key priority. The Chinese thirst for minerals, especially from African countries, is an issue that Australia needs to remain very vigilant about in terms of both competition and opportunities. It would seem to me to be in the best interests of the Australian mining companies to work in partnership with NGO’s fighting against human trafficking and other human rights abuses so as to bring prices back to a level where mining Coltan in Australia again becomes a lucrative industry. As a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) I have written to Global Advanced Metals, the company responsible for the Wodgina Tantalum mine in WA, to see how we might work together towards such a solution. Indeed, concerted global action by a range of companies in the supply chain via the EICC (Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition), including Globaleicc-logo Advanced Metals, has led to measures designed to eliminate conflict-mined material. This in turn will lead and has already led to an increase for tantalum products that are known to be derived from sustainable and ethical sources.

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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