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Coltan is the industrial name for columbitetantalite, a dull black metallic ore from which the elements niobium (formerly "columbium") and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral is columbite, hence the "col" half of the term. The mineral concentrates dominated by tantalum are referred to as tantalite.[1]

The Congo contains 80 percent of the world's supply.[2] When coltan is refined it becomes a heat resistant powder with high permittivity. Refined coltan is a critical element in creating capacitors, which are used in a vast array of small electronic devices, especially in mobile phones, laptop computers, pagers, and other electronic devices. Tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. Export of coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European and American markets has been cited by experts[3][4] as helping to finance the present-day conflict in the Congo, with the DanChurchAid 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.”[5] An estimated 6.9 million people have died since 1998 in the war in the Congo[citation needed].

Contents

Production and supply

Tantalum minerals are mined in Australia (leading producer[6][7]), 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.[8] Tantalum is also produced in Thailand and Malaysia as a by-product of tin mining and smelting.

Potential future mines, in descending order of magnitude, are being explored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan,[9] and Brazil.[10] A significant reserve of coltan was discovered in 2009 in western Venezuela.[11] In 2009 the Colombian government announced coltan reserves had been found in Colombia's eastern provinces.[12]

Use and demand

Coltan is used primarily for the production of: • 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 .[13]
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.[14] Coltan Facts, 2009, http://www.congoweek.org/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=120&Itemid=207, retrieved 2009-12-17 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Rwandan occupation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a key factor preventing the DRC from exploiting its coltan reserves for its own benefit. Mining of the mineral is almost exclusively artisanal and small-scale. Note that the amount of coltan produced in Congo is a fraction of what is produced worldwide. A 2003 UN Security Council report[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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]

Toward Freedom claims that the 2000 launch of the Sony PlayStation 2 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 of 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. Statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that Sony made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan."[17]

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.[18] Likewise Johann Hari has written of the connections between coltan resources and the genocide in Congo.[19][20] A United Nations committee investigating the plunder of gems and minerals in the Congo listed in its final report[15] approximately 125 companies and individuals involved in business activities breaching international norms. Companies accused of irresponsible corporate behavior are for example Cabot,[21], Eagle Wings Resources International[22] George Forrest Group[23] and OM Group.[24]

Currently, industry experts estimate that the majority of coltan from the DRC is being exported to China for processing into electronic-grade tantalum powder and wires.[25]

Estimates of the Congo's fraction of the world's coltan reserves range from 64%[26] to 80%.[27]

Environmental concerns

Because of excessive mining, erosion of the land is occurring and polluting lakes and rivers, smothering the organisms that live in the water. This has a chain reaction as there is less of a supply for animals higher on the food chain.

The Eastern Mountain Gorilla's population has diminished as well. Miners are miles away from food sources and have been hunting gorillas. Called "Bush Meat", the gorilla population is down and almost extinct. In Central and West Africa an estimated 3-5 million tons of bushmeat is killed each year. [|Olive, Brooke] (2006), Mountain Gorillas- Bushmeat or Blackmail, http://www.aboutmyplanet.com/environment/mountain-gorillas/, retrieved 2009-12-17 

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.[28][29]

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."[30]

For economic rather than ethical reasons, a shift is also being seen from traditional sources such as Australia, towards new suppliers such as Egypt[citation needed]. 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[citation needed].

References

  1. ^ Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, Coltan, http://www.tanb.org/coltan.html, retrieved 2008-01-27 
  2. ^ Coltan Facts, http://www.congoweek.org/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=120&Itemid=207, retrieved 2008-01-27 
  3. ^ [|First Post] (December 1, 2008), Congo: war-torn heart of Africa, http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/45947,features, 
  4. ^ [|First Post] (December 15, 2009), Breaking the Silence- Congo Week, http://www.congoweek.org/english/, retrieved 2008-12-02 
  5. ^ Söderberg, Mattias (2006-09-22), Is there blood on your mobile phone?, http://www.danchurchaid.org/sider_paa_hjemmesiden/where_we_work/africa/congo_drc/read_more/is_there_blood_on_your_mobile_phone, retrieved 2009-05-16 
  6. ^ Australian mining industry fact sheet July 2009
  7. ^ Australian Governement Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  8. ^ US Geological Survey (2006), Minerals Yearbook Nb & Ta, http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/#pubs, retrieved 2008-06-03 
  9. ^ http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=12486
  10. ^ Mining Journal (2007-November) (PDF), Tantalum supplement, http://www.noventa.net/pdf/presentations/tanatalumSCR_presentation.pdf, retrieved 2008-06-03 
  11. ^ http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4869, October 16th, 2009
  12. ^ http://www.semana.com/noticias-nacion/guerra-coltan/131652.aspx, November 21st, 2009
  13. ^ Applications for Tantalum, http://www.tanb.org/tantalum1.html, retrieved 2008-06-03 
  14. ^ The Economics of Tantalum, http://www.roskill.com/reports/tantalum, retrieved 2008-06-03 
  15. ^ a b S/2003/1027, 2003-10-26, http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=S/2003/1027, retrieved 2008-04-19 
  16. ^ UN (3 May 2001). "Security Council Condemns Illegal Exploitation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Natural Resources". Press release. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/sc7057.doc.htm. Retrieved 2008-05-12. 
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Werner, Klaus, 2003,The New Black Book of Brand Companies (in German Das neue Schwarzbuch Markenfirmen), ISBN 3-216-30715-8
  19. ^ The war the world ignores May 14, 2006 Sunday Independent article by Johann Hari
  20. ^ August 07, 2006 Democracy Now radio show
  21. ^ Friend of the Earth-United States (2004-08-04), FOE complaint to Department of State concerning U.S. companies, http://oecdwatch.org/files/raid-foe_vs-_us-companies_complaint, retrieved 2009-05-15 
  22. ^ Friend of the Earth-United States (2004-08-04), Groups File Complaint With State Department Against Three American Companies Named in UN Report, http://oecdwatch.org/files/raid-foe_vs-_us-companies_press-release, retrieved 2009-05-15 
  23. ^ BBC (2006-04-17), Scramble for DR Congo's mineral wealth, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4900734.stm, retrieved 2008-04-19 
  24. ^ Friends of the Congo, Coltan: What You Should Know, http://www.friendsofthecongo.org/new/coltan.php, retrieved 2008-04-19 
  25. ^ Tiffany Ma, "China and Congo's Coltan Connection," Project 2049 Futuregram (09-003), June 22, 2009, at http://project2049.net/documents/china_and_congos_coltan_connection.pdf
  26. ^ "The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Major Challenges Impede Efforts to Achieve U.S. Policy Objectives; Systematic Assessment of Progress Is Needed" GAO-08-562T, March 6, 2008 http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08562t.pdf -- on request for their source the GAO gave the Golbal Witness report "Under-Mining Peace: Tin - the Explosive Trade in Cassiterite in Eastern DRC" June 30, 2005 http://www.globalwitness.org/media_library_detail.php/138/en/
  27. ^ "Congo's coltan rush" 1 August 2001 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1468772.stm
  28. ^ U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2002, Tantalum p. 166-7
  29. ^ U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2005, Tantalum p. 166-7
  30. ^ Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, Tantalum, http://www.tanb.org/tantalum1.html, retrieved 2008-01-27 

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