Coltan Mining in Congo: What We Should Know
In this world of technology, most of us possess electronic gadgets. But how often do we stop to think about the mineral components that were obtained to manufacture our laptop or smartphone? Where and how were they extracted and by who? One such mineral is Coltan, a word that sounds unfamiliar, but a mineral too familiarly used in everyday life. We have it in our laptops, cell phones, Xboxes, TVs and many other electronic devices. The absence of coltan would for example make crucial task such as x-ray and electronic daily communication almost impossible.
Columbite-tantalite, coltan for short, is a grey metallic ore found in large quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. After processing and refinery, coltan is converted to tantalum in a metallic state. Its properties include heat resistance, capable of withholding relatively high metallic charges. Making it a crucial component of an electronic device.
With the recent boom in technology prices of Coltan have risen to over $500 per kg, making it even more profitable to mine the mineral. As firms like Samsung, Apple and Sony race to meet demand across the world. To meet this demand, the mineral is often mined in harsh and unhealthy conditions and often relies on child and slave labour in Congo.
Two years ago, the UN security Council released a report (S/2016/1102) which highlighted the alleged exploitation of natural resources, including coltan, from Congo by other countries involved in the current war. There are reports that forces from neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are involved in smuggling coltan from Congo, using the revenues created 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 UN had also noted in its 2001 report that “consequences of illegal exploitation has been twofold: (a)massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians; (b) the emergence of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen.”
Coltan mining has also had a huge environmental impact in Congo. Rebels that control the mining have often overrun forests in reserved national parks for mining. And the poverty and starvation from the war was caused many people to resort to poaching wildlife in the country.
It is also worth noting that the path that coltan takes to get from Africa to the rest of the world is a highly complex one. This complexity has often led to the blurring of lines between legitimate mining operations and illegal rebel operations ones. Making it very difficult to trace and find the origins for the minerals.
After a public outcry many western tech giants have publicly rejected the use of coltan from Congo, and looking elsewhere like Australia. instead relying on their main suppliers in Australia. For example, Kemet an American firm and the largest tantalum capacitor manufacturer now requires its suppliers to “certify that their coltan ore does not come from Congo or bordering countries.” While such measures a taken now, much of the exploited and ‘blood’ tantalum is already in our gadgets and electronic devices.
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Denis Mukwege, in his Nobel Lecture, called for pressure on manufacturers that use cobalt and coltan that Congo produces to control their supply chains to prevent child and slave labour. He also called for pressure on Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda to pacify armed groups that fight in eastern Congo. He also called on “serious mining players” to push the government to pacify the country’s east so they can mine and do so ethically.
But as consumers, we also ought to think long and hard about the electronic we use and perhaps use our influence to demand better from our suppliers. Because, behind every device is an array of sacrifices that made it possible.
Written By: McPherlain C. Chungu