The Conflict over Coltan: The Curse of the Congo
In order to understand this conflict, it is necessary to understand the importance of coltan as a mineral. When columbium and tantalum occur together it is known as coltan, which is an essential but rare mineral known in its full form as columbite-tantalite (Montague, 2002). Coltan was first discovered in the early nineteenth century and since then, it has been extremely valuable for technological advances (Montague, 2002). Once coltan is processed, it is able to conduct electrical charges in high-tech equipment such as cell phones, computers, and it is even necessary for jet engines and weapon systems (Montague, 2002). The Congo is not the only location where coltan is available, as Australia is the largest producer of tantalum producing twenty-five percent of the world market (Jackson, 2002). However, the Congo holds the largest reserves, as four-fifths of the world’s tantalum is found in Africa and eighty percent of that is found in the Congo alone (Montague, 2002). Once coltan is sold onto world markets, it is almost impossible to trace the end product back to the mines where it came from, resulting in it becoming known as the “blood diamond of the digital age” (Mantz, 2008, p.36).
What differentiates coltan and digital minerals from other minerals, such as gold and diamonds, is argued to be their materiality (Smith, 2011). Unlike gold and diamonds, which are mined in large-scale mining projects, coltan is mined artisanally, is heavy and voluminous as a raw ore, and is more accessible to local people to mine (Smith, 2011). Miners manage to get coltan of the ground without machinery or tools and routinely face risks and dangers such as injury or death (Mantz, 2008). The fact that coltan is heavy and voluminous means that teamwork is required to mine it, meaning that the mining of coltan is more readily accessible to the local people in a way that differs substantially from the mining of other minerals. These aspects of coltan make it appealing for local people, as the Congo struggles with unemployment rates of eight-five percent with seventy-nine percent of the population struggling to live on less than $2 per day (Whitman, 2010).
Mining sites are usually remote, resulting in two or more intermediaries between the miners and international buyers (Jackson, 2002). Local traders (comptoirs) are responsible for collecting the coltan from local people through operating in conjunction with local militia (Whitman, 2010). These local traders test for the percentage of tantalum in the coltan and proceed to sell it to the trader (negotiaters) (Whitman, 2010). Most likely these secondary traders are operating without a license and are the ones who smuggle coltan out of the Congo (Whitman, 2010). Once out of the country, the traders then sells it to Belgians, South Africans, Rwandans, and other international buyers, who then sell it to processing plants in the United States, Japan, and Europe (Mantz, 2008). It is in these processing plants that it is refined into sheets, powder, or alloy before it is sold to electronic manufacturers, armament manufactures, or other end-users (Jackson, 2002).
Despite the dangers, local people still engage in risky mining for these minerals as mining is one of the few sources of income and hope for the rural eastern Congolese (Mantz, 2008). Common threats to towns that are close to mining operations include regular ravages and pillages by armies, which decrease the stability in the area (Mantz, 2008). Violence is not limited to minerals still in the ground but also occurs around minerals that had already been mined, including the looting of areas known to have currently found coltan (Jackson, 2002). Rape and sexual violence is a threat and reality for many women of the Kivu provinces who live hear the mining communities, with an estimated 1,100 rapes occurring per month between November 2008 and March 2009 (Whitman, 2010). The years of wars have made it near impossible for ordinary people to obtain financial assets due to disruptions to economic linkages and the destruction of their agricultural markets (Jackson, 2002). Due to the unpredictability of the military, many people plant crops close to their homes, which increases the subsistence level of production, rather than allowing for production of surplus (Jackson, 2002). Thus, not only has the conflict over coltan caused fear and destruction of current livelihoods, it also limits the ability to plan for the future.
The competition for these scarce resources maintains the instability, conflict, and war in the Congo, as coltan is the most lucrative raw material resulting in the attraction of military forces to mining areas (Montague, 2002). The Congo has a long history of exploitation based on resources, from King Leopold’s Congo Free State and Mobutu’s Zaire to the current situation (Jackson, 2002). Recently, it was the increase in global significance of coltan that allowed “warlords and armies in the eastern Congo [to] convert artisanal mining operations in small villages… into slave labour regimes to earn hard currency to finance their military operations” (Mantz, 2008, p.38). For instance, it is estimated that Congolese armed groups earns approximately $8 million per year from trading coltan (Whitman, 2010). Furthermore, the ability of the military to conduct coltan mining as they do is partly associated with the fact that there is no central, globalized market to control the price for coltan, resulting in prices varying sharply for each independent transaction made between miners and local traders (Whitman, 2010).
However, the current issues around the coltan trade in the Congo is based on the fact that coltan trade is mainly conducted by illegitimate groups, particularly groups associated with the military or armed groups responsible for human rights abuses (Montague, 2002). Specifically, illicit investment by international mining companies has been occurring since the invasion of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) in 1996 (Montague, 2002). This invasion was lead by Laurent Kabila in collaboration with rebel movements from Uganda and Rwanda (Montague, 2002). This war began the official conflict and allowed an increase of illegal exploitation of Congo’s resources by both foreigners and the Congolese (Turner, 2007). It was international investors who effectively crowned Laurent Kabila, leader of the AFDL, as the de facto leader of Zaire, despite him only having control over a small portion of the country (Montage, 2002). The mining deals made with AFDL during the early stages of the war allowed the establishment of “ ‘legitimate’ mining operations in rebel-occupied territories and essentially provided revenues to the AFDL” (Montague, 2002, p.109). This resulted in a re-shaping of Congo’s mining sector, where business and politics were mixing, resulting in exploitation by international companies as the Congo was using the private sector to support its war and recover from economic devastation (Montague, 2002).
Then, in 1998, the ‘second war of liberation’ broke out when Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) rebels overthrew Kabila as president (Jackson, 2002). Between 1998 and 2001, over two and a half million people have died in the Congo: 350,000 due to direct acts of violence over mining and the remaining perishing due to economic collapse, displacement, loss of livelihood, malnutrition, and disease (Jackson, 2002). Yet, international investors continued to regard rebel-held land as de facto sovereign states that were open to investment in coltan mining resources, despite the fact that was technically illegal (Montague, 2002). Although this war officially ended in 2003 due the inter-Congolese dialogue and negotiations, conflict is still ongoing (Whitman, 2010). Even the 2006 election forced the Congolese people, who were ready for peace, to vote between two leading warlords, resulting in Kabila being returned to power (Turner, 2007). The Congolese government has not been successful at controlling the illegal mining operations nor protecting its citizens from military threats. And the international community has largely been ignoring it as well.
For instance, conflicts in the Congo escalated when the demand for coltan shot up in 1999 prior to the release of the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2000 (Mantz, 2008). The rising demand for cassiterite and tantalum increased the incentives to exploit tantalum and separating coltan from cassiterite became profitable (Jackson, 2002). This demand in developed countries resulted in the price of coltan rising 10-fold overnight, with the Congo filling in the supply gap that Australia was not able to fill (Mantz, 2008). During this increase in price, Sony negotiated for the coltan they needed directly with the RCD, which intensified the violence in the area as militia increased their use of forced civilian labour to obtain more coltan to gain a larger profit (Smith, 2011). Former RCD leader Dr. Adolphe Onusumba reported making $1 million US in 2000 for exporting 100-150 tons of coltan per month, compared to only $200,000 for diamonds during the same period (Whitman, 2010). The conflict in the Congo over the production of coltan necessary to produce the demanded PlayStation 2 consoles completely escaped the public knowledge of those who use these high-tech products. Furthermore, the creation of GSM and 3G phones, LCD monitors, and other high-tech products has again increased the demand for coltan, as these products require substantial amounts of coltan (Whitman, 2010).
Individuals in Western countries demand high-tech goods that require coltan for its production without knowledge of this conflict. This lack of knowledge has allowed the conflict to continue without substantial outside pressure for the Congo to control the violent and illegal extraction of this resource. It is essentially the lack of awareness and knowledge of people in developing countries, combined with the greed of the knowledgeable, which has allowed the mining in the Congo to continue despite the horrible human rights injustices that occur. Knowledge needs to be share so that this no longer happens, as the desires of the rich should not outweigh the needs of the impoverished.
Global Witness. (2009, July). “Faced with a gun, what can you do?”: War and the militarization of mining in Eastern Congo. Retrieved document on March 3, 2011, from http://www.globalwitness.org/library/faced-gun-what-can-you-do.
Jackson, S. (2002). Fortunes of war: The coltan trade in the Kivus. HPG Background Papers, 13, 21-36.
Mantz, J. W. (2008). Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo. Social Anthropology, 16, 34-50.
Montague, D. (2002). Stolen goods: Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. SAIA Review, XXII, p. 103-116.
Smith, J. H. (2011). Tantalus in the digital age: Coltan ore, temporal dispossession, and “movement” in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. American Ethnologists, 38, 17-35.
Turner, T. (2007). The Congo wars: Conflict, myth, & reality. London: Zed books.
Whitman, S. (2010). Sexual violence, coltan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In M. A. Schnurr, & L. A. Swatuk (Eds.), New Issues in Security #5 - Critical environmental security: Rethinking the links between nation resources and political violence. Nova Scotia: Dalhousie University, Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.