COLTANCell phones and civil war – it’s your call!
The current war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has brought unspeakable devastation upon its people. With approximately 73,000 people dying monthly, the death toll is rapidly approaching four million in three years of war…Women and children account for approximately 40 percent of war casualties. In Mobia and Kalemie in Katnaga, 75 percent of children born during the war have died or will die before their second birthday.- Dena Montague
Coltan - or columbite-tantalite - is a dull metallic ore that, once refined, becomes tantalum, a heat-resistant metal powder that can hold a high electrical charge. Coltan, found in three-billion-year-old soils, is widespread in Australia, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coltan is “essential” to modern life. It is the key component in high-tech equipment, ranging from cell phones, pagers, computers, VCRs, camcorders, stereos, and Play Stations to jet engines, missiles, ships, and weapon systems.
As technology booms, so does the demand for coltan. Between 1990 and 1999 alone, tantalum sales for electronics soared by 300%! In 2000, approximately 6.6 million pounds of tantalum were used worldwide, 60% of which went to the electronics industry. The United States, Japan, and Western Europe are the largest consumers of tantalum worldwide.
Case Study: The Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo holds 64% of global coltan and is the world’s largest reserve. The demand for coltan and coltan-reliant products has created lucrative business opportunities for rebel movements in the Congo, namely the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the Rally of Congolese Democracy (RCD), and the Congolese Liberation Front (CLF).
While the average Congolese worker earns $10 per month, the average Congolese coltan-miner earns anywhere from $10 to $50 per week. Coltan has also earned both Ugandan and Rwandan rebels multi-million dollar sales, which they have used to finance and fuel their war efforts in the Congo. As a result, Rwanda and Uganda have become major exporters of raw materials that they do not possess at all, or have in only limited quantities. Between late 1999 and late 2000, the Rwandan army alone earned at least $20 million a month from coltan.
The forces – primarily motivated by economic incentives rather than political ideals – have attacked villages and devastated entire communities to gain and maintain control over coltan-rich areas. They have also exploited poor economic conditions by employing child labourers to keep up with the demand for coltan, and to keep their operating costs low. Further, the DRC holds more that 50% of Africa’s forests. To mine coltan, rebels have cleared larges areas of these lush forests, destroyed mountain gorilla habitat, and cut the gorilla population in the DRC by nearly half.
Many international corporations have imported coltan from the DRC via Rwanda for use in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Like so many other resources, once coltan reaches international markets, it is impossible to trace its history to the mines from which it came.
At least two tantalum-manufacturing companies, Kemet and Cabot Corporation, have asked their suppliers to certify that their tantalum does not originate in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. However, coltan, unlike conflict diamonds, currently lacks any sort of certification system.
Want to Find Out More?
1. Stolen Goods: Coltan and Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
2. Coltan Mining in the DRC:
3. Guns, Money and Cell Phones:
4. Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre