Since my behind the scene visit to see the Chimps at Monarto where I heard about the Call on You Initiative; I’ve been doing a bit of reading about Coltan and Coltan mining. I’ve become increasingly aware of how ignorant I am regards this rare mineral which is a vital component used in my most loved electrical gadgets (phone, iPad and computer). It turns out that there are a number of factors surrounding the mining of Coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that I simply had no idea about.
I want to continue to read and research, but just now while the topic is sparking my “oh dear” radar and consuming my mind, I want to jot down a quick summary of where I’m at in understanding the situation so far and to link you to some more informative sources.
What the heck is Coltan?
Coltan is the shortened name of a rare mineral called Columbite-tantalite. When refined, Coltan has unique properties for storing electrical charge. It is an essential component used in electrical devices such as TVs, gaming consoles, Mobile Phones (cell phones) and other like gadgets.
Where do we get it from?
The largest producer of Coltan is Australia, however the majority of the worlds Coltan reserves are located in Africa. Heaps of websites claim that 80% of the world’s Coltan reserves are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but I can’t seem to find anything evidential to back it up. The best I’ve found is a 2008 US Government Accountability Office report which states 64%.
What’s it worth?
The demand for Coltan increased significantly in the 90s reaching its peak in 2000 when the price of Coltan reached up to US$600 per kg. The market crashed in 2001 and the price of Coltan has now settled at about US$100 per kg.
Down and Dirty on the DRC
• It’s the third largest country in Africa and has a massive mineral and natural resource wealth.
• It Gained independence from Belgium in 1960 but hopes of a democratic and peaceful government were dashed when Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a coup.
• Throughout the 90s the DRC became more politically unstable as thousands of refugees escaping the Rwandan genocide poured in from the East.
• Mobutu was over thrown in 1997 by a movement from the East, led by Laurent Desire Kabila, which was heavily supported by Ugandan and Rwandan militaries.
• Relations between the new regime and Rwanda and Uganda deteriorated in 1998 when these countries claimed that the new regime was supporting rebel incursions from Congolese soil.
• The DRC called on other neighbours (Zimbabwe, Angola Namibia and Chad) for support.
• So began the Second Congo War
Coltan in the Congo
All of this conflict centres around the North-East region of the DRC, Kivu. Strangely enough, this is also where the majority of the DRC’s natural resources including Coltan are found. Congolese law states that the mining of resources may only occur under license. A license can cost up to $US40,000 a year and traders are taxed US$4 a kilo for export.
Unfortunately, in an area ravaged with conflict and desperation this law has minimal influence. Instead, many unlicensed traders mine and smuggle Coltan across the borders illegally. A highly controversial UN report stated that over the course of 18 months 2010/11, Rwanda sold over US$250 million worth of Coltan – though the country does not mine the resource.
Flow on Effects
Of course, this smuggling leads to further illegal activities and corruption including bribe, theft, human rights abuses and violence in order to get a hold of the precious resource. In particular:
• Funding purchase of weaponry – Money from Coltan sales is often used to directly fund the purchase of weaponry for various rebel groups.
• Use of child labour and child soldiers – the use of child labour and development of child soldiers is widely acknowledged in the DRC. Where there is corruption and conflict in the region, there is further potential for the exploitation of children.
• Displacement – originally farming land, many land owners have been forced of their land with the alternative being to mine the land themselves.
• Destruction of the environment – the main area where Coltan is mined is in the Kahuzi Biega National Park region. This park was once home to large primate populations. Since the conflict throughout the 90s, it is estimated that this primate population has dropped (due to poaching and habitat destruction by over 50%.
Hope for the Congo
In 2001 a report to the United Nations Security Council called for a moratorium on purchase and import of resources from the DRC. It called for three action items:
1. Called on buyers of Coltan to ensure that the product they were purchasing did not originate from Kahuzi-Beiga National Park or Okapi Wildlife Reserve (listed as World Heritage Sites).
2. To support efforts to remove miners from these World Heritage Sites.
3. Called on buyers of Coltan and government authorities in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda to do everything they can to find alternative employment for miners operating in these World Heritage Sites.
It also supported a previous recommendation to put a temporary ban on the export of Coltan from the DRC.
The Point of this Post
I’m not looking to debate this topic or to make people feel guilty for using electronics. Rather, I’m feeling guilty for being ignorant and want to share what I have learnt since acknowledging this ignorance.
There are numerous issues surrounding the conflict. Coltan mining is simply one of these issues. The reason I have become somewhat consumed by Coltan mining in the last few weeks is because Coltan mining and production has such a direct relationship with the way I live my life. I look around my apartment and I can count a dozen electrical devices that contain Coltan.
I don’t feel guilty for possessing such goods, but I do feel guilty for being ignorant about the impact and contribution that my demand for these goods may behaving on territorial conflicts in the DRC. I wonder if there’s anything I can do to minimize my impact without sacrificing the Gen Y lifestyle I have become so accustomed to?
If you’re interested in some of the things I’m going to try and do, feel free to have a look at my BE BETTER BASKET – How to Cut the Coltan for the Congo.
Truth and adventure till the Last page, stay safe
If you want to read some more: