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 metal 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 to 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 to 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 from 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 Global 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.