Coltan, Gorillas and cellphones


What Is Coltan ?

Coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite is a metallic ore comprising Niobium and Tantalum, found mainly in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally Zaire). When refined, coltan becomes a heat resistant powder, metallic tantalum which has unique properties for storing electrical charge. Of the 525 tons of tantalum used in the USA in 1998, 60% was used in tantalum capacitors, with a predicted growth rate of 14% per annum (from Uganda Gold Mining Ltd web site).

It is therefore a vital component in the capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards.

Mining Coltan

Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo by groups of men digging basins in streams by scrapping off the surface mud. They then "slosh" the water around the crater, which causes the Coltan ore to settle to the bottom of the crater where it is retrieved by the miners. A team can "mine" one kilo of Coltan per day.

The tech boom caused the price of Coltan to rocket to as high as US$600 per kilogram at one point, compared to a previous value of US$65 per kilogram, although it has settled down to around US$100 per kilogram at the moment. A Coltan miner can earn as much as US$200 per month, compared to a typical salary of US$10 per month for the average Congolese worker.

80% of the world's known coltan supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the UN says is subject to "highly organized and systematic exploitation." 

Coltan financing war

A recent report by the UN has claimed that all the parties involved in the local civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. One report suggested that the neighboring Rwandan army made US$250 million from selling Coltan in less than 18 months, despite there being no Coltan in Rwanda to mine. The military forces of Uganda and Burundi are also implicated in smuggling Coltan out of Congo for resale in Belgium.

A report to the United Nations security council has called for a moratorium on purchase and import of resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo, due to the ongoing civil war that has dragged in the surrounding countries.

Coltan and Gorillas

The main area where Coltan is mined, also contains the Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla. In Kahuzi Biega National Park the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130 as the ground is cleared to make mining easier. Not only has this reduced the available food for the Gorillas, the poverty caused by the displacement of the local populations by the miners has lead to Gorillas being killed and their meat being sold as "bush meat" to the miners and rebel armies that control the area. Within the Dem. Rep. of Congo as a whole, the U.N. Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight Dem. Rep. of Congo national parks has declined by 90% over the past 5 years, and only 3,000 now remain.

Due to the damage caused to the Gorilla population and their natural habitat, companies that use Coltan are now starting to demand that their Coltan only comes from legitimately mined sources and is not a byproduct of the war. 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 Dem. Rep. of Congo or from neighbouring countries. Such moves could lead to "Gorilla Safe " cellphones being marketed, much in the same way that Tuna meat is now sold as "Dolphin Safe".

Other sources

There are few alternative sources of Coltan apart from the Dem. Rep. of Congo, although the University of St Andrews geologist, Dr Adrian Finch recently reported that he has found Coltan inside extinct volcanoes in the remote North Motzfeldt region of Greenland. Dr Finch has now received a two year funding plan from the Carnegie Trust and Gino Watkins Fund to investigate the commercial viability of mining the volcanoes.

What to do ?

There is very little the "man on the street" can do to prevent Coltan exploitation as it is not a "visible" component of cellphones that can be differentiated when shopping, but continuing pressure on circuit board manufacturers has lead to many demanding that their Coltan supplies only come from legitimate sources. Similar pressure on other users of Coltan can also help to ensure that only legitimately mined and sold Coltan is used in circuit boards. At a government level, pressure on local politicians to drive awareness of the ongoing civil war in the Dem. Rep. of Congo and help to secure a resolution will help to prevent the extinction of the Mountain Gorilla.

The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (T.I.C.), the industry organisation representing producers, processors and consumers of tantalum and niobium around the world, said that it deplores the reported activities of illegal miners in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was agreed at the T.I.C. Executive Committee meeting in Brussels on April 3rd 2001 that the organisation would take a stand regarding the use and production of coltan mined in these World Heritage Sites.

Useful links

National Public Radio - US based radio station did a story on this issue - audio of program on their site

Born Free Foundation - a report into Coltan mining commissioned by the Foundation.

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund - fund to save Mountain Gorillas