Thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, the story of diamonds funding all sorts of mayhem in Africa went all Hollywood and brought awareness to a lot more people about the ghastly situation of blood diamonds. Unfortunately, diamonds aren’t the insurgent’s only best friend. Let’s back up a bit. The value of diamonds is high because they are hard to come by (for a number of reasons, but that’s a story for another day) and the same is true of other products of the Earth, and not necessarily ones you’d care to wear on your finger or around your neck.
The mineral called coltan is a boring-looking substance containing columbite and tantalite which provide the letters for the compound name. The former provides the element columbium (now called niobium) and the latter contains the element tantalum. These are not lovely gemstones. However, the alloy-enchancing properies of niobium and the heat resistance and electrical charge holding powers of tantalum make them very desirable indeed. Tantalum is especially prized for the making of capacitors….like the ones in your cellphone, PlayStation or digital camera. Now as it turns out, rich coltan deposits aren’t found in very many places, but it’s fairly plentiful in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.
Mining methods for recovering coltan are astonishingly low-tech. The operations are sometimes called “artisinal mining” because the digging and sorting are done by hand, using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and pans. And sometimes, just hands and nothing else. The work is gruelling and low paid, but it’s twice as lucrative as farming, so there are many willing to grab a shovel and get digging. The income from this relatively new industry is thus something of a boon to the impoverished people in the coltan areas of the DRC, but where there is money, there are those who seek illicit profits.
Not known for its governmental stability, the DRC is home to numerous insurgent militias as well as ethnic groupings who do not tolerate each other well and clash periodically. The coltan, in small bits and pieces in the soil, is dug up, sorted, and bagged. It’s then carried on someone’s shoulder out of the remote mining areas to a road where it rides on a motorcycle or car to a highway, and thence to harbors where it is accumulated and shipped to Southeast Asia for processsing. Along the way, however, the armed militias “tax” or sometimes simply take the coltan for their own enrichment. Resistance is met with violence, and the populace is cowed by threats, murders and sexual violence. There have also been cases of forced labor as well as child labor. The troublemakers are able to maintain their fights against the government or one another by means of this lucrative material, creating chaos and a horrible existence for the miners and the general population.
The government, in order to choke off the militias, forced the cessation of coltan mining in the DRC, but the demand for the elements persisted, and solutions were sought. As this situation came more to light and human rights groups demanded that First World end-users take responsibility for ending this cycle of plunder and violence, tracking programs were devised. Material that can be certified as legitimately obtained is tracked all along its route, from the raw ore, to the packaging, transport to ships, and the aggregation of ore from multiple areas, to the refineries overseas.
Special tags and bags identify this conflict-free coltan and the manufacturers who eventually receive the refined tantalum can know they are not supporting violent misery with their use of it. And the eventual smart phone purchaser can also post a photo to Instagram or ask a question of Siri without feeling the guilt of funding bloodshed elsewhere. The system is imperfect – there is a black market in counterfeit tags and bags, and corruption still finds a way – but the reforms are helping as the wealthier segment of the planet continues to rely on the some of the very poorest to provide obscure materials for its must-have gadgets.