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Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore from which are extracted the elements niobium and tantalum. Mineral concentrates containing tantalum are usually referred to as tantalite. Niobium was called "columbium" some decades ago, hence the "col" half of the term.[1] In appearance, coltan is a dull black mineral. Tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers. Export of coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European and American markets has been cited by experts[2] as helping to finance the present-day conflict in the Congo, with one aid agency asserting that “much of the finance sustaining the civil wars in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is directly connected to Coltan profits” [3].


[edit] Production and supply

The main production of tantalum occurs in Australia, where the largest producer, Talison Minerals, operates the Wodgina mine.[4] Tantalum minerals are also mined in Brazil, Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mozambique. The United States Geological Survey reports in its 2006 yearbook that the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces a little less than 1% of the world's tantalum.[5] Tantalum is also produced in Thailand and Malaysia as a by-product of tin mining and smelting.

Potential future mines, in order of magnitude, are being explored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan[6] , and Brazil.[7]

[edit] Use and demand

Tantalum is used primarily for the production of capacitors, particularly for applications requiring high performance, a small compact format and high reliability, ranging widely from hearing aids and pacemakers, to airbags, GPS, ignition systems and anti-lock braking systems in automobiles, through to laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, video cameras and digital cameras.[8] The upsurge in electronic products over the past decade resulted in a peak in late 2000 with inflated high demand and price increases for the mineral which lasted a few months. In 2005 the price was still down at early 2000 levels.[9]

[edit] Coltan in DR Congo

The Rwandan occupation in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a key factor preventing DRC from exploiting its coltan reserves for its own benefit. Mining of the mineral is almost exclusively artisanal and small-scale. A 2003 UN Security Council report[10] charged that a great deal of the ore is mined illegally and smuggled over the country's eastern borders by militias from neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.[11]

Coltan smuggling has also been implicated as a major source of income for the military occupation of Congo. An activist website, Toward Freedom, states that the search for coltan has fueled a brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; they state that demand for coltan has caused Rwandan military groups and western mining companies to seek hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the rare metal, often by forcing prisoners-of-war and even children to work in the country's coltan mines. [12]. The Rwandan Army has made an estimated $500m in the last 18 months (as of October 2008) derived from Congolese coltan.

To many, this raises ethical questions akin to those of conflict diamonds. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several electronics manufacturers have decided to forgo central African coltan altogether, relying on other sources.[citation needed] The high-tech industry's demand for tantalum clearly has fueled an increase in coltan mining worldwide – including in the Congo region.

Toward Freedom claims that the 2000 launch of the Sony PS2 required a large increase in production of electric capacitors, which are primarily made with tantalum, which greatly increased the world price of the powder from $49/pound to a $275/pound, resulting in accelerated mining of the Congolese hills containing coltan. Sales in computers, mobile phones, and DVD players spiked around this same time. Sony claims it has discontinued its use of tantalum acquired from the Congo, and sourced it from a variety of mines in several different countries. University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh undergraduate student and blogger David Barouski claims “The coltan ore trades hands so many times from when it is mined to when SONY gets a processed product, that a company often has no idea where the original coltan ore came from, and frankly don't care to know. But statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that SONY made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan." [12]

All three countries named by the United Nations as smugglers of coltan have denied being involved. Austrian journalist Klaus Werner has documented links between multi-national companies like Bayer and the illegal coltan traffic.[13] Likewise has Johann Hari written on the connections between coltan resources and the genocide in Congo.[14][15] A United Nations committee investigating the plunder of gems and minerals in the Congo listed in its final report[10] approximately 125 companies and individuals involved in business activities breaching international norms. Companies accused of irresponsible corporate behavior are for example Eagle Wings Resources International,[16] George Forrest Group[17] and OM Group.[18]

[edit] Environmental concerns

The coltan mining area in the DRC is within one of the main ranges of the threatened Eastern Lowland gorilla. It is also alleged that coltan mining could have severe environmental repercussions on the forests and wildlife in the area, in particular the gorilla.[19]

[edit] Price increases and changing demands

There has been a significant drop in the production and sale of coltan and niobium from African mines since the dramatic price spike in 2000, based on dot com speculation and multiple ordering. This is confirmed in part by figures from the United States Geological Survey.[20][21]

The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre in Belgium, a country with traditionally close links to the Congo, has encouraged international buyers to avoid Congolese coltan on ethical grounds:

"The central African countries of Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and their neighbours used to be the source of significant tonnages. But civil war, plundering of national parks and exporting of minerals, diamonds and other natural resources to provide funding of militias has caused the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center to call on its members to take care in obtaining their raw materials from lawful sources. Harm, or the threat of harm, to local people, wildlife or the environment is unacceptable."[22]

For economic rather than ethical reasons, a shift is also being seen from traditional sources such as Australia, towards new suppliers such as Egypt. This may have been brought about by the bankruptcy of the world's biggest supplier, Australia's Sons of Gwalia, although the company continues to produce and export ore.

[edit] References in popular culture

  • Coltan is Referenced in the "The West Wing" as the motivation for no action in a ransom with a reporter. (2002)

[edit] References

  1. ^ Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, Coltan,, retrieved on 2008-01-27 
  2. ^ [|First Post] (December 1, 2008), Congo: war-torn heart of Africa,,features,-, retrieved on 2008-12-02 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Talison Minerals (2008), Wodgina Operations,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  5. ^ US Geological Survey (2006), Minerals Yearbook Nb & Ta,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Mining Journal (2007-November) (PDF), Tantalum supplement,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  8. ^ Applications for Tantalum,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  9. ^ The Economics of Tantalum,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  10. ^ a b S/2003/1027, 2003-10-26,, retrieved on 2008-04-19 
  11. ^ UN (3 May 2001). Security Council Condemns Illegal Exploitation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Natural Resources. Press release. Retrieved on 2008-05-12. 
  12. ^ a b Playstation 2 component incites African war, Console war reaches past the couch and into the Congo, By Ben Silverman, Yahoo Games, 7/25/08.
  13. ^ Werner, Klaus, 2003,The New Black Book of Brand Companies (in German Das neue Schwarzbuch Markenfirmen), ISBN 3-216-30715-8
  14. ^ The war the world ignores May 14, 2006 Sunday Independent article by Johann Hari
  15. ^ August 07, 2006 Democracy Now radio show
  16. ^ Friend of the Earth-United States (2004-08-04), Groups File Complaint With State Department Against Three American Companies Named in UN Report,, retrieved on 2008-04-19 
  17. ^ BBC (2006-04-17), Scramble for DR Congo's mineral wealth,, retrieved on 2008-04-19 
  18. ^ Friends of the Congo, Coltan: What You Should Know,, retrieved on 2008-04-19 
  19. ^ Radio Expeditions (2001-12-20), Coltan Mining and Eastern Congo's Gorillas,, retrieved on 2008-06-03 
  20. ^ U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2002, Tantalum p. 166-7
  21. ^ U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2005, Tantalum p. 166-7
  22. ^ Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, Tantalum,, retrieved on 2008-01-27 

[edit] External links

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