Coltan, short for columbite tantalite, is the principal source of tantalum, a rare and valuable metal in huge demand in today’s high technology industries.
Tantalum is an extremely hard, dense rare element that is highly resistant to corrosion. It has a very high melting point and is a good conductor of heat and electricity. Demand for tantalum has been growing in leaps and bounds since 1992, mainly due to the increase in demand for tantalum capacitors used in personal computers and mobile phones.The electronics industry is by far the biggest consumer of tantalum but there was a massive shorfall in 2000 and early 2001 as a result of the market demand for capacitors. This has put pressure on the mining of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and illegal exploitation soon became a serious problem during the second war, which broke out in 1998.Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process. A large number of men work in unision digging large craters in streambeds, removing dirt from the surface in order to get to the coltan underground.
The workers then slosh water and mud around in large washtubs, allowing the coltan to settle to the bottom due to its heavy weight. A good worker on an average can produce one kilogram of coltan a day. Coltan mining is very profitable job in Congo terms. The average Congolese worker makes $10 a month, while a coltan miner can make anywhere from $10 to $50 a week. Coltan is found in abundance in the highlands near rivers and riverbeds or ina hidden form throughout the two Kivu and Maniema provinces. While 80%of the world’s coltan reserves are said to be in Africa, the DRC accounts for 80% of these African reserves. This explains in part why recent conflicts have been concentrated in the eastern part of the country and the negative impact that these conflicts have had on the local environment.
Some facts that have led the Democratic republic of Congo into an absymal state are:
1. During the transition process (2003 – 2006) one third of the Congo was sold off to any foreign companies without any discernible benefit to the Congo.
2. Mining titles dispensed totaled 4,500 to 642 companies.
3. 90 percent of exports from DRC are either illegal or unregulated.
4. Benefits from existing mining contracts do not account for more than 6% of the national budget. In 2002 when the country was at war the mining sector contributed as much as 30 % to the national budget.
5. Mining companies have realized gains of 600% while discernible gain to the government has not exceeded 5%.
6. Many of the companies involved in the mining review are publicly traded on the Toronto, London or New York Stock Exchanges. Some of them include Freeport-McMoRan, DeBeers, AngloAmerican, BHP Billiton.
7. The Congolese Parliament is silent on the mining contracts and the government has yet to include provincial governments and civil society.
8. Pursuant to the publication of the mining review, on Monday, March 24, 2008 the head of the Ministry of Mines, Martin Kabwelulu announced the set-up of a government panel to follow-up with the review process. It will be lead by the Minister of Agriculture.
9. A few mining companies have already intimated that they will take the DRC to international court to maintain their ill-gotten contracts.
10. As quiet as it is kept many of the government officials who signed these odious and detrimental contracts while pocketing millions of dollars are still in government including president Joseph Kabila himself. Of course the review process and follow-up does not include the pursuit of corruption charges against those involved in selling of the Congolese people’s wealth.
11. Contrary to earlier statements by the Mining Ministry, the government is not going to change the Mining Code that was put in place by the World Bank in 2002. The law was clearly written in the best interest of foreign mining companies and not the Congolese people.
A highly controversial U.N. Security Council report recently gave out the alleged exploitation of natural resources, including coltan, from Congo by other countries involved in the current war. There are reports that forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are involved in smuggling coltan from Congo, using the revenues generated from the high price of coltan to sustain their efforts in the war. By one estimate, the Rwandan army made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of coltan, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda. All countries involved in the war deny exploiting Congo’s natural resources. In August 1998, the Congolese Union for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-RCD), launched a rebellion in the city of Goma, supported by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA). Since then, in a struggle in which, behind the myth of ethnic rivalries, are hidden the old colonial powers that continue to ransack the wealth of post-Colonial Africa, the war has been rife between two, loosely defined parties. On the one hand the RDC and the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda, supported by the United States, relying on the military bases such as that built in Rwanda by the United States company Brown & Root, a branch of Halliburton, where Rwandese forces are trained and logistic support is provided to their troops in the DRC, together with United States combat helicopters and spy satellites. The other party is made up of the Democratic Republic of Congo (led by one of Kabila’s sons, after his father was assassinated by the Rwandese), Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
However, behind these states are the companies sharing out the zone. Various joint companies have been set up for this purpose, the most important one being SOMIGL (the Great Lakes Mining Company), a joint company set up in November 2000, involving Africom, Premeco, Cogecom and Cogear, (the latter two are Belgium companies –it should be remembered that DRC, formerly the Belgium Congo, was a Belgium colony), Masingiro GmbH (a German company) and various other companies that ceased their activities in January 2002 for various reasons (a drop in Coltan prices, difficult working conditions, suspension of Coltan imports from DRC) and are waiting for better conditions: Sogem (a Belgian company), Cabot and Kemet (U.S.) the joint United States-German company Eagles Wings Resources (now with headquarters in Rwanda), among others.
The transport companies belong to close family members of the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda. In these virtually military zones, private air companies bring in arms and take out minerals. Most of the Coltan extracted is later refined by a small number of companies in Germany, the United States, Kazakhstan and the Far East. The branch of Bayer, Starck produces 50% of powdered tantalite on a world level. Dozens of companies are linked to the traffic and elaboration of this product, with participation of the major monopolizing companies in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. As if this were not enough, the Trade, Development and Industry Bank, created in 1996 with headquarters in the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali, acts as correspondent for the CITIBANK in the zone, and handles large amounts of money from Coltan, gold and diamond operations. Thirty-four companies import Coltan from the Congo, among these, 27 are of western origin, mainly Belgium, Dutch and German.
The Belgium air company, Sabena is one of the means of transporting the mineral from Kigali (capital city of Rwanda) to Brussels, and associated to American Airlines, announced last 15 June the suspension of the service, under strong pressure from the world campaign “No blood on my cell phone!” (or: “Pas de sang sur mon GSM”), exhorting people not to buy cell phones containing Coltan due to its repercussion on the prolongation of the civil war in the Congo. As a result of this campaign, the Belgium research institute International Peace Information Service (IPIS) produced a document in January 2002 “Supporting the War Economy in the DRC: European Companies and the Coltan Trade,” which documents the leading role played by the companies in promoting the war through their cooperation with the military and exhorting that the international consideration of the Coltan trade be given priority over its local aspects.
In order to mine for coltan, rebels have overrun Congo’s national parks, clearing out large chunks of the area’s lush forests. In addition, the poverty and starvation caused by the war have driven some miners and rebels to hunt the parks’ endangered elephants and gorillas for food. In Kahuzi Biega National Park, for example, the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130.The main zones where Coltan is extracted are located in forest zones, such as the Ituri forest (see WRM bulletin No. 67). The entry of military commandos and workers (many of them farmers who have been dispossessed of their lands and resources, seeking the promise of better income), the installation of mining camps, the construction of routes to reach and take out the coveted mineral, all this goes to conspire against the forest as a whole. Formerly fulfilling functions for the region and the neighbouring peoples, the forest, once the traditional lands of the hunting and gathering indigenous peoples, such as the Mbuti and a reserve for gorillas and okapis –a relative of the giraffe– the habitat of elephants and monkeys, has become the scenario for war and depredation
The path that coltan takes to get from Central Africa to the world market is a highly convoluted one, with legitimate mining operations often being confused with illegal rebel operations, and vice versa, making it difficult to trace the origin. To be safe, in recent months many electronics companies have publicly rejected the use of coltan from anywhere in Central Africa, instead relying on their main suppliers in Australia. American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Congo or bordering countries. But it may be a case of too little, too late. Much of the coltan illegally stolen from Congo is already in laptops, cell phones and electronics all over the world.
Use of the income generated by coltan exploitation is dictated by the goals and strategies of the various actors involved in the cycle. For instance, at the extraction level, some local Congolese brokers have improved their standard of living by building new houses, driving new cars or creating new businesses. A majority of Congolese, however, collaborate with Rwandan armyofficials/businessmen who, with some RCD officials, are getting the lion’s share of the profits generated from coltan extraction and sale. The 35 000 Rwandan soldiers in the Congo at the end of 2001 were well paid and equipped, while a special co-operative was set up in order to cater for the health of the wounded and sick soldiers fighting in DRC.
The impact of the revenues generated by the DRC plundering is nonetheless limited in the countries involved, except among a small number of prominent individuals in the army and business community, who are connected one way or another to the internatioal trade. For instance, thanks to SOMIGEL, the RCD was, until recently, able to balance its budget, pay salaries and plan for social policies. Ultimately, the coltan money was re- directed to maintain an RCD army estimated at 40 000 soldiers.
The most disastrous consequence of coltan exploitation can be seen at the community level, as the damage inflicted on the relationships between the Congolese people and their neighbouring Rwandans, Ugandans and Burundians. At national level, the future relationship between the DRC and its eastern neighbours will be deeply affected by this situation, and may haunt any responsible government in the DRC for many years to come.
The African journalist, Kofi Akosah-Sarpong has even stated that “Coltan in general terms is not helping the local people. In fact, it is the curse of the Congo.” He has revealed that there is evidence that this material contaminates, pointing out its connection with congenital deformations in babies in the mining zone, which are born with bandy legs.
Far from clean and innocent, these technologies, on which the concentration of capitals is based and built, have acquired through their “globalisation” their highest expression, contaminating and breaking up the web of life in its multiple and rich manifestations. In the meanwhile, over the tombs of the 2000 African children and farmers who die every day in the Congo, can we absentmindedly continue to use our cell phones?
H Vesperini, Congo’s Coltan Rush, BBC News, 1 August 2001.
J Havermans, Africa’s most worrying battlefield, Searching for peace in Africa:
An overview of conflict prevention and management activities,
Business in Africa, February 2002.
Vital ore funds Congo’s war, Washington Post, 19 March 2001.
Art. 32 of the Edict-Law No 81-013 of 2 April 1981
J-B Sonji, La Reference plus, 25 May 2000.
United Nations, Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of
Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of
Congo, 2001, p 9
Supporting the war economy in the DRC: European companies and the coltan
trade, IPIS Report, Brussels, January 2002.
“UN report accuses Western companies of looting Congo”, Chris Talbot,
International Peace Information Service, http://users.skynet.be/ipis/tnewpubsnl.htm ;