COLTAN TRADE IS DESTROYING AFRICA
Columbite-tantalite — coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore
found in major quantities in the eastern areas of Congo. When
refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant
powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties
make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic
elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards.
Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops,
pagers and many other electronics. The recent technology boom
caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as $400 a
kilogram at one point, as companies such as Nokia and Sony
struggled to meet demand.
How Is Coltan Mined?
Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process similar to how
gold was mined in California during the 1800s. Dozens of men
work together digging large craters in streambeds, scraping
away dirt from the surface in order to get to the coltan
underground. The workers then slosh water and mud around in
large washtubs, allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom due to
its heavy weight. A good worker can produce one kilogram of
coltan a day.
Coltan mining is very well paid in Congo terms. The average
Congolese worker makes $10 a month, while a coltan miner can
make anywhere from $10 to $50 a week.
Financing the Conflict
A highly controversial U.N. Security Council report recently
outlined the alleged exploitation of natural resources, including
coltan, from Congo by other countries involved in the current war.
There are reports that forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda
and Burundi are involved in smuggling coltan from Congo, using
the revenues generated 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
In order to mine for coltan, rebels have overrun Congo's national
parks, clearing out large chunks of the area's lush forests. In
addition, the poverty and starvation caused by the war have
driven some miners and rebels to hunt the parks' endangered
elephants and gorillas for food. In Kahuzi Biega National Park,
for example, the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half,
from 258 to 130.
Tracing the Source
The path that coltan takes to get from Central Africa to the world market is a highly convoluted one, with legitimate mining operations often being confused with illegal rebel operations, and vice versa, making it difficult to trace the origin. To be safe, in recent months many electronics companies have publicly rejected the use of coltan from anywhere in Central Africa, instead relying on their main suppliers in Australia. American-based Kemet, the world's largest maker of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Congo or bordering countries. But it may be a case of too little, too late. Much of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell phones and electronics all over the world.
Subject: DRC: The Tale of Tantalum Capacitors
Contributing to Civil War
How far distant from the situation must we be to feel no moral responsibility for the effects of our actions?
Read the following description and answer the questions at the end.
The Tale of Tantalum Capacitors
A situation was described recently in the computer industry magazine The Industry Standard (http://www.thestandard.com). The article A Call to ARMS in the June 11, 2001 issue described how the demand for cell phones and computer chips is helping to fuel a bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
An ore called Columbite-tantalite (coltan) is one of the most sought after commodities in the world. Refined, the ore produces a metal called tantalum that sells for $100 a pond. Tantalum is a key component of modern technology.
Various trading companies sell coltan to processing companies. The processing companies sell to manufacturers of tantalum capacitors who sell to the high tech companies such as Ericsson, Intel, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, AMD, Dell, Sierra, Solectron and Nokia. Then, we buy the computers and cell phones.
Between the mining and the end users there can be a dozen or more intermediaries involved in coltan traffic. Half those intermediaries can be involved between the individual mining operations and the legitimate regional traders.
Over $6 Billion a year is paid for coltan. It is also produced in Australia, Canada and Brazil. And, that's OK since these nations have legitimate governments that regulate mining and monitor legitimate transactions.
But, in war-torn Congo, there is a lengthy civil war. Neighboring Rwanda and Uganda are funding several groups. These rebel groups have found that Coltan represents a lucrative means of financing additional arms to continue the fighting. In addition, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian gorilla groups have smuggled thousands of tons of coltan from the Congo into their own nations.
Coltan brings in about $20 million a month to guerilla groups and independent farmers in northeastern Congo. Much of that money goes to prolong the fighting.
Warring rebels have forced farmers to abandon their land, rich in coltan. Gorilla groups have forced native prisoners, including children, to mine for coltan. Gorillas often hijack legitimately mined coltan and sell it to other intermediaries. Over 10,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 have been made homeless in the conflict.
Manufacturers have claimed that they deal only with legitimate sources of coltan. Most, however, state that they have no way of knowing the ultimate source of coltan obtained from central Africa.
In spite of the uncertainty over sources, most suppliers and manufacturers claim they do not purchase products from rebels. Ericsson requires that suppliers comply with corporate environmental, ethics and human rights policies. Motorola asked suppliers to ensure that no rebel related Congolese tantalum is sold to them. HP also tries to ensure that they receive no rebel related tantalum.
The United Nations proposes a trade embargo on the import and export of coltan and other minerals between the Congo and is neighboring Burndi, Rwanda, and Uganda.
The Moral Issue
A summary of the facts could include the following points:
* Some coltan mining and shipments help support the continued civil war in the Congo.
* Determining the exact source of coltan is difficult.
* Coltan is used to produce tantalum capacitors and other components of modern electronic devices.
* Such electronic devices are increasingly in demand.
* The Congo is far distant from most people (especially in the United States).
The moral issue, then, is whether it is proper to support the killing of innocents in exchange for electronic devices?