Coltan: From the Congo to You

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it is richly endowed with vast natural resources. Despite ongoing wars, its bountiful water systems and massive forest reserves protect its varied indigenous wildlife: chimpanzees, gorillas, forest elephants, Congo peacocks, Nile crocodiles, and leopards. Its mineral resources — gold, diamonds, tin, copper, cobalt ore, petroleum, zinc, and coltan (an African abbreviation for columbite-tantalite that is used as a high-charge conductor for mobile phones, digital games, microprocessors, and other electronic equipment) — are coveted worldwide. In part, this demand fuels the ongoing crisis in the eastern Congo.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, coltan emerged as a globally significant commodity essential to the production of digital technology. As world demand for mobile phones, laptops, PlayStations, and digital cameras exploded, tech industries came to increasingly rely on coltan from the Congo, which contains an estimated 80% of the world's reserves.

Warlords and armies in the eastern Congo converted mining operations in small villages into forced labor camps, earning hard currency to finance their military operations. Scores of men stand in muddy pits picking through layers of rock looking for lumps of dull gray coltan as militia stand watch with AK47 rifles in hand. Sacks of the mineral are often transported on the backs of miners who trek to towns where trading houses prepare the minerals for sale to regional middlemen. From there, they are sold to multinational tech companies. An estimated $1 million worth of coltan per day is transported out of the Congo. The miners receive little compensation for their part in its excavation.

The issues surrounding conflict mineral mining have gained worldwide attention and, while tech companies have begun to insist that their suppliers use conflict free minerals, activist groups advocate that they become more proactive in sourcing the minerals they purchase.

— Reprinted with permission of the author and La Jolla Playhouse

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