Conundrum in the Congo: Three Years Ago, News That the Electronics Industry's Demand for Tantalum Was Fuelling the Civil War in the Congo Led to Calls for a Worldwide Embargo on Congolese Tantalum. but Was a Ban Really the Right Course of Action?

Article excerpt

We've all become accustomed to hearing stories of African despots selling diamonds and timber to prop up their corrupt regimes. But in 2001, consumers were shocked to learn that their mobile phones, computers and digital cameras were helping to fuel the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The source of the problem was tantalum, a mineral that, thanks to its ability to bold high levels of electrical charge, is a vital ingredient in the capacitors of such appliances.

It has been estimated that the DRC has about ten per cent of the world's tantalum reserves, in the form of an ore, columbite-tantalite, known locally as coltan. The richest deposits lie in the east, in the provinces of North and South Kivu, where coltan had long been ignored in favour of minerals such as gold and cassiterite.

During the late 1990s, the technology boom and consequent rise in demand for capacitors saw this situation begin to change. In 2000, projected sales figures in the electronics industry led to a huge increase in orders for tantalum and demand soon outstripped supply. The price of the mineral on the international market rocketed from US$70 to US$1,100 (39 [pounds sterling]-620 [pounds sterling]) per kilogram. In the Kivus, armed groups dug hundreds of illegal, unregulated artisanal mines, with catastrophic consequences for both local communities and the environment. The Western media screamed about HIV/AIDS, rape, prostitution, child labour and the slaughter of rare species and pointed out that consumers and the industry shared some of the responsibility.

In response, a group of European NGOs launched a campaign, 'No blood on my mobile', that called for a worldwide embargo on Congolese tantalum. In this age of corporate and consumer responsibility this seemed to be the best course of action, but now a British NGO is going to great lengths to support miners in DRC.

The war in eastern DRC began in 1998 when Rwandan troops invaded the Kivus to protect its borders from Interahamwe militia intent on finishing the Tutsi genocide. In the following years, the situation deteriorated further, as government forces from several countries, including Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, rebel factions and renegade militia became involved. Although the conflict's origins lay in security issues, according to the UN, by 2000, economic and financial gain was the primary objective. At first, the armed forces looted stockpiles of forest and agricultural produce, including livestock, and minerals. When these were exhausted, they turned to mineral extraction, particularly coltan.

Many mineral deposits in North and South Kivu lie relatively close to the surface, so they can be extracted with the minimum of equipment--picks, shovels, sieves--and a supply of water. For a population rendered destitute by looting, coltan represented a rare opportunity to earn money, so thousands began digging. In reality, however, few benefited. "The soldiers forced the miners to sell at low prices," says Dr Plus Bitakuya, lecturer at a rural-development college in Bukavu. "If the miners refused, they would simply confiscate the coltan." The soldiers sold the mineral on to buyers from neighbouring countries, he explains.

Small communities grew up around the mines. The influx of money attracted drugs, alcohol and prostitution, and led to the inevitable spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs. And violence escalated--women and children were raped and people were forcibly conscripted to work the mines. "I know of cases where children were drugged to make them fearless and then dropped into mines to dig in difficult places because they were small," says Hans Romkema of the Life and Peace Institute, a peace-building organisation working in DRC. Poor conditions led to the development of respiratory diseases and other health problems, and people were regularly buried alive in landslides.

The exodus to the mines drew people away from farms, creating unemployment, food shortages and rapid inflation. …


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