The Coltan Crisis

I walked into a Verizon wireless store recently and I found myself wanting to upgrade my current phone. I was approached by a customer service rep and as I am being greeted, I again think about the Samsung Galaxy SIII that I was just looking at and how it would be nice to have something newer and faster. Well, I ended up leaving the store still with my old trusty iPhone 3GS that has served me well ever since I got it. Later that night I started to reflect about my shopping experience and how countless other people go through that very same motion of desiring something shiny and new. I started to think about how many phones, and pretty much all electronics, become outdated, either because of technological advancements or fashion, and get replaced. I found that I was asking myself this one question: Where do all the resources come from to make all this? In my quest for information, I actually came across an important issue in regarding Coltan and mining in the Congo!



What is Coltan?

Coltan or columbite-tantalite is a metallic ore that that is highly essential in electronics today. Once refined coltan becomes a heat-resistant powder, called metallic tantalum, capable of holding a high electrical charge. Because of these properties coltan is used to create the tantalum capacitors used in pretty much all cell phones, tablets, laptops and other electronics.



Where does it come from?

Coltan was discovered around 1800. For years Coltan was mined all over the world, with the majority coming from either Australia or Brazil. In recent years, however, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the source of up to 80 percent of the Coltan produced. War rages in the Congo and the demand for Coltan, experts say, is one of the driving forces. Many of the mines are controlled by rebels and according to reports from the UN the Rwandan army as profited $250 million USD from the sale of Coltan in less than a year and a half. This is despite there not being any Coltan in Rwanda.


The Mining of Coltan

Coltan mining in the Congo utilizes very primitive methods. Generally teams of miners crape off surface mud and dig basins in streams. Sloshing the water around in the crater will then cause the Coltan ore to settle where it can then be retrieved from the bottom of the crater by miners. A good team can produce one kilogram, per day, of Coltan. One kilogram of Coltan is said to be valued at around $100.

The money made from the sale of Coltan is often spent on weapons to continue the conflict. In the last 10 years millions have died, families and even whole villages have been raided and massacred. While some of the mining is legitimate much of it uses slave-like labor and children are not immune to the struggle either. The use of child labor and children soldiers in the Congo is widely acknowledged.








Threatened Species

As if child labor, a slave like work force, rebel armies, constant conflict, and exploitation weren’t enough, Kahuzi Beiga National Park is located in the primary region where Coltan is mined. This area is home to the Mounatin Gorilla. Nearly half of the gorilla population in this area has been lost. Ground clearing in preparation for mining has reduced the gorillas’ available food supply.  Unfortunatly this isn’t the only concern for the gorillas. The abject poverty of the displaced people in the area has lead to gorillas being hunted and sold for food to areas miners and rebel soldiers. It is feared that only about 3,000 gorillas now remain.

Soil Erosion and Land Degradation

The local people and animals aren’t the only ones being affected by this mining. In order to to mine for Coltan acres of forest have had to be cleared. The process of deforestation have had serious affects on the region’s environment. The rainforest’s capacity to absorb local greenhouse gasses emissions has been deminished. Soil erosion has become a serious problem which has lead to heavy silting of river water. Many species of rare plants have also been uprooted.

What is Coltan used for?

  • Laptop computers
  • Cellular phones
  • Jet engines
  • Rockets
  • Cutting tools
  • Camera lenses
  • X-ray film
  • Ink jet printers
  • Hearing aids
  • Pacemakers
  • Airbag protection systems
  • Ignition and motor control modules, GPS, ABS systems in automobiles
  • Game consoles such as playstation, xbox and nintendo
  • Video cameras
  • Digital still cameras
  • Sputtering targets
  • Chemical process equipment
  • Cathodic protection systems for steel structures such as bridges, water tanks
  • Prosthetic devices for humans – hips, plates in the skull, also mesh to repair bone removed after damage by cancer
  • Suture clips
  • Corrosion resistant fasteners, screws, nuts, bolts
  • High temperature furnace parts.
  • High temperature alloys for air and land based turbines

Top 5 Things You Can Do To Limit Your Coltan Footprint:

  1. Use your electronics for as long as they serve your purpose. Do not upgrade purely for fashion.
  2. Buy refurbished and used products when ever possible
  3. Sell or give away goods you no longer need. Do not throw things away that could be used by someone else.
  4. Share and use sharing sites. Share infrequently used items with family and friends.
  5. Stop buying things you don’t need.


More sites for relevant information:

Works Cited


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