Do you know about Coltan in the Congo?

Picture from presstv.ir

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.

Picture from wikepedia

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.

Picture from Unicef

• 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.

Picture from unesco.org

• 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

KazzaBee x

If you want to read some more:

Coltan and the Congo – the story of child soldiers and cellphones 

Out of Africa: the blood tantalum in your mobile phone

Congo suspends blood coltan mining

Fortunes of war: the coltan trade in the Kivus

2001 UN Report – Resources in the DRC

Coltan, Mining and Biodiversity Conservation in Eastern DRC

Coltan mining in the DRC

5 thoughts on “Do you know about Coltan in the Congo?

  1. Coltane is what is called a rare earth and rare earths have been in the news recently, re China’s effort to corner the market. See: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12284/

    In particular note the following:

    …, rare earths are also important to the permanent magnets used in the synchronous motors on wind turbines and to the kind of batteries that will power both the low-CO2 hybrid (petrol/electric) road vehicles of the present and the all-electric vehicles of the future. Indeed, the MIT researchers have determined that demand for these green-energy technologies ‘may lead to an increase [in demand] of more than 700 per cent and 2600 per cent for Nd [neodymium] and Dy [dysprosium], respectively, over the next 25 years’.

    To go green you need efficient batteries. To make efficient batteries you need ‘rare earths’. The best way to protect chimps in their native habitat, is probably to go green and use less resources, therefore we must acquire more rare earths in the short term to enable us to cut down on the requirement for other resources, petrol, in the long term. Any ban on using rare earths from the DRC could hurt chimps by stopping us from going green.

    • John, while rare earths are vitally important in the development of batteries and electric motors, both of which are crucial components of green energy, Coltan is not involved in the manufacture of either of those items. Coltan is a semiconductor, meaning it is used for its capacitance (ability to hold charge) and is therefore used in semiconductor circuit design, which is the field of electronics that allows the miniaturization of electrical circuits using the principles of Quantum electro-dynamics. In short, Coltan is used to make the components in our phones, tablets, tvs etc as small as possible; this particular evil is very much a result of our desire for greater convenience, regardless of the cost.

      That isn’t to say that your point isn’t valid; sadly the resources we use to manufacture most of our goods are finite and all of them, when extracted, do damage to the environment. I think what all of this points out is that there are three key components here that people need to become aware of:

      1. The basic science behind the devices they are using, so they can come to understand how remarkable it is that we can create these things, but also to understand the disproportionate use of resources to make them that way,

      2. The impact that a consumerist ‘throw it out and buy a new one’ lifestyle can have, given the disproportionate use of non-renewable resources to create what are, essentially, tools of convenience,

      3. Where those non-renewable resources come from and how damaging their extraction can be.

      As an optimist I firmly believe that this is a problem of ignorance, not heartlessness. Once people become aware of the impact their actions have, I would hope they would lobby not for the banning of all semi-conductor devices, but instead for a more ethical method of extraction. We have already seen it with fair-trade tea and coffee and many other goods, why not fair-trade natural resources?
      :-)

      • You are absolutely right, re application of Coltan. However, general principle still holds and that is that if you want to save the environment you must go with development. Once everybody is able to enjoy a western standard of living, then and only then can governments and their people focus on the environment. Global warming is not an immediate issue to the hundreds and millions of people living on less than a thousand dollars a year.

        To the west mind, Elephants and Chimps et al are a cause and they are worth saving. To many poor Africans they are a nuisance and/or a potential source of food. For poor Africans to share western concerns re the environment and nature, they must first meet their material needs which’ quite rightly, include: cars, motor bikes, giant TVs and air conditioners–and why should they have not these things?

        If you want to deal effectively with environmental problems, do not approach it from the position of reducing consumption–that is not going to work, India and China will not play ball and why should they?–instead approach it from an engineering perspective, look for solutions to enable production and consumption to not only to be maintained at present levels but to actually increase in line with people’s material expectations. Such solutions might involve nuclear power, GM crops etc.

      • John, I absolutely agree on engineering solutions being the key, however the politicians and the general public are not on board with utilizing engineering solutions to solve our problems. Deuterium laser fusion could solve our renewable energy issues in a decade or two with adequate funding, but instead we are looking at a 30-40 year timeline because no-one wants to invest in it; they are ‘waiting to see what happens’. They would rather have a fictional budget surplus in the short term than a sustainable future for the long term; sustainability doesn’t win votes; cash in hand does.

        While I completely understand what you are saying about the people living on the ragged edge, I cannot agree with your representation of it as an either-or proposition. We are nothing more than highly evolved primates; if chimps can’t survive, neither can we. If we ravage the planet to the point where there is no longer any habitable space and we have no more resources to consume, how on Earth will we survive? Environmental impacts are not just indicators of some esoteric concept; human beings are physically the most fragile of mammals, it is our swollen cerebral cortices and our ability to adapt that make us dominant, but it is very easy to envisage us doing so much damage that the harsh conditions exceed our ingenuity. Our knowledge and capacity are as finite as the resources we are consuming.

        As a humanitarian issue, the rampant poverty in developing countries is of highest priority, but is this not closely linked to the West’s over-consumption? If every human being on Earth were to consume beef at the rate the average American does, we would need three Earths just to graze the cattle. There is no engineering solution to that problem short of a Heinlein-esque synthetic meat; the only way to solve it is to curb behavior. Sustainable consuming, sustainable agriculture, sustainable manufacturing and sustainable energy are the four key elements here, all of which have elements of both behavioral and engineering solutions. There is an engineering solution to sustainable consuming, it is called recycling, but it is also a behavioral issue. TVs, computers, mobile phones, all electronic goods, do not belong in the tip; they need to be broken down for their precious metals to be reused. The same goes for motor-vehicles, aircraft, heavy machinery, ships, construction materials. None of this belongs in landfill; recycling is the engineering solution, but it is the ‘consume-and-discard’ behavior that needs to be overcome. China and India, the examples you brought up before, are perfect exemplars of what-not-to-do in this case. That is not to be disparaging; we went through the industrial revolution in which our inefficiencies were worse (and are still pretty bad given the technology we now have available), but the difference there was we were 1% of their current number. They need to learn from our mistakes and apply the hard-learned solutions we found (and are still finding) preemptively, otherwise the sheer size will crush us.

        Global warming may not be a concern to the vast majority of people on this planet who live below the poverty line, but it will very quickly become a concern when droughts or floods or cyclones hit. The problem is that we, as finite creatures (and, I guess, from our Western Ivory Castles), compartmentalize things: “climate change isn’t a concern until we solve global poverty” – except there is a chance that climate-change is driving the East African drought that is leaving millions dead because they can’t grow food; “natural-resource consumption isn’t an issue in the face of wider humanitarian issues” – except most resources are gathered using methods that directly violate human rights. We need to learn to think broader; all of these issues are intricately interconnected.

        I think the real underlying issue is this: current economic theory says Growth=Prosperity. That sounds great, until you ask a physicist what they think of that equation. They will tell you that it doesn’t balance; that an infinite amount of stuff cannot fit in to a finite space (unless we are talking about black holes, in which the point of economics is entirely moot), so the current economic theory has a use-by date. We need to learn to have prosperity WITHOUT growth in order to be sustainable, because if we continue to grow, we will crowd and consume ourselves out of existence.

        Unfortunately that all came out sounding much more bleak than I feel about this issue; things like deuterium laser fusion, desalination, fair-trade and post’s like this give me hope; I just wish we could learn to see things holistically rather than as compartmentalized, unrelated problems.

    • I completely acknowledge that those living in less fortunate conditions to us in the West may not be able to prioritise the environment or value other animals as much as we can. I concur that these things will not become a priority to those in the developing world until they too have access to the standard of living that we enjoy.

      What I am advocating is that we in the West should apply a bit more thought regards where we get these resources and how we utilise them. I definitely do not think we should ban the use of Coltan in electrical devices. As you JB point out, it makes for incredibly effective devices.

      What worries me is how or where this resource comes from and whether it is extracted and sold to producers ethically. For me the crux of it is; that mining of Coltan in the Congo is possibly adding to further crime, corruption, violence, human rights abuses, exploitation of children and the destruction of primate habitats. I do not want to aid this.

      By reducing my consumption, applying greater research to the products I use and by increasing awareness of these issues then perhaps I can add to the reduction for demand of Coltan from the Congo. Until there is a level of peace whereby mining operations in the Congo can be regulated I am unwilling to trust that Coltan is a positive thing.

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