Hidden cost of mobile phones, computers, stereos and VCRs?
The ore, Columbite-tantalite, or coltan for short, isn’t perhaps as well known as some of the other resources and minerals. However, the demand for the highly prized tantalum that comes from the refined coltan has enormous impacts, as highlighted by a recent U.N. Security Council report where an expert panel was established on the illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Given the substantial increase in the price of coltan between late 1999 and late 2000, a period during which the world supply was decreasing while the demand was increasing, a kilo of coltan of average grade was estimated at $200. According to the estimates of professionals, the Rwandan army through Rwanda Metals was exporting at least 100 tons per month. The Panel estimates that the Rwandan army could have made $20 million per month, simply by selling the coltan that, on average, intermediaries buy from the small dealers at about $10 per kg. According to experts and dealers, at the highest estimates of all related costs (purchase and transport of the minerals), RPA must have made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months. This is substantial enough to finance the war. Here lies the vicious circle of the war. Coltan has permitted the Rwandan army to sustain its presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The army has provided protection and security to the individuals and companies extracting the mineral. These have made money which is shared with the army, which in turn continues to provide the enabling environment to continue the exploitation.
— Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations Security Council, April 12, 2001.
The report also mentions Ugandan and Burundian rebels being involved in looting and smuggling of coltan, using illegal monopolies, forced labor, prisoners and even murder. According to the Industry Standard, “[t]hese accusations have not been taken lightly; several members of the U.N. panel that prepared the report have since received death threats. Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have issued protests to the United Nations over the report, claiming it to be inaccurate and unfounded.”
A follow up report in October 2003 also noted that:
In 1999 and 2000 a sharp increase in the world prices of tantalum occurred, leading to a large increase in coltan production in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of that new production involved rebel groups and unscrupulous business people forcing farmers and their families to leave their land, or chasing people off land where coltan was found and forcing them to work in artisanal mines. As a result, the widespread destruction of agriculture and devastating social effects occurred, which in a number of instances where akin to slavery.
— Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations Security Council, S/2003/1027, October 28, 2003
What drives the demand for this mineral? Most of modern computer-based technology:
It [Tantalum, which is refined coltan] sells for $100 a pound, and it’s becoming increasingly vital to modern life. For the high-tech industry, tantalum is magic dust, a key component in everything from mobile phones made by Nokia and Ericsson and computer chips from Intel to Sony stereos and VCRs.
— Kristi Essick, Guns, Money and Cell Phones, The Industry Standard, Jun 11 2001
For more information on the resources and minerals and other backgrounders, you can start off at the following links:
- Africa’s Seven-Nation War report from the International Crisis Group.
- Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from United Nations Security Council, 12 April, 2001, which reveals a a massive level of illegal exploitation by corporations and countries alike.
- A summary of the lengthy UN report can also be seen here, from the Environment News Service.
- Guns, Money and Cell Phones, from the Industry Standard, Jun 11 2001, describes in detail the issues around coltan exploitation.
- A Black Mud From Africa Helps Power the New Economy by Blain Harden, New York Times, August 12, 2001
- What is Coltan? The Link Between your Cell Phone and Congo, by Imtiyaz Delawala, ABCNews.com, September 7, 2001.
- Conflict Cell Phones, by Anthony Lappé, Guerilla News Network, June 8, 2001
- Mineral for Cell Phones Aggravates Congo War from Drillbits and Tailings, a publication from Project Underground, Volume 6, Number 3, March 31, 2003
Amnesty International details that there have been many human rights violations reported due to the economic exploitation. For example:
- Thousands of Congolese civilians have been tortured and killed during military operations to secure mineral-rich lands.
- Foreign forces from Rwanda and Uganda have promoted interethnic conflicts and mass killings as a means to secure mining zones.
- Combatants of the various forces in the region have killed or tortured independent miners and traders for their minerals or money.
- Many of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, driven from their homes into neighboring countries or other parts of the DRC, have died from malnutrition and lack of access to humanitarian assistance.
- Children as young as 12 have been among those forced into hard labor in the mines.
- Human rights defenders who have reported or criticized such abuses have been beaten, detained, forced to flee, or killed.