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« on: July 09, 2014, 02:33:20 PM »

The coltan killing fields

By Ian Lambie
July 09, 2014 - newsday.co.tt


THE DEMOCRATIC Republic of the Congo is a very large country comprised of 905,355 square miles (2,345,409 sq kms) or approximately the size of all of Western Europe. It is reputed to have more mineral wealth than any other country in the world.

According to a recent edition of African Business magazine, the mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is estimated to be US$24 trillion — equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the United States combined.

The DRC has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold, copper, tin, manganese, lead, zinc, coal, uranium, oil and coltan.

What is coltan? It is an important component of your cell phone and most electronic communication devices. Unfortunately, the demand for coltan has made the conflicts in the DRC more complicated and attempts are being made to ensure that mobile phone manufacturers stop using coltan mined in the eastern part of the DRC.

Columbite-tantalite, coltan for short, is a metallic ore found in substantial quantities in the eastern parts of the DRC. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in manufacturing capacitors, the electronic elements that control current-flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum allowed capacitors to not only be smaller, but to also provide better electrical performance.

The recent technology boom caused the price of coltan to skyrocket to as much as US$400 a kilogramme, as companies such as Nokia and Sony struggled to meet demand.

Approximately 60 percent of all tantalum produced ends up in the billions of capacitors being produced each year for use in numerous electronic devices including laptop computers, DVD players, video games, cellular phones, ipads, pagers and similar handheld electronics devices; in digital, still and video cameras; in automotive systems such as ignitions, engine emissions, airbag deployment, and antilock breaking systems; in hearing aids and in pacemakers, and in military electronics.

In the DRC, coltan is mined through a primitive process similar to how gold was mined during the 1800s. For individuals living in the Congo, mining is the easiest source of income available, as the work is consistent and regular, even if only paying US$1 a day.

A good worker can produce one kilogram of coltan a day. However, coltan is laborious to mine, as it often takes a three-day march into the forests to reach the mine and there to scratch out the ore with hand tools and to “pan” it. The average worker in the Congo makes US$10 a month, while a coltan miner can earn anywhere from US$10 to US$50 a week. About 90 percent of Congolese young men are engaged in mining.

In their search for the lowest prices, electronics companies have sourced material produced in tantalum-rich but unstable regions such as the Republic of the Congo, where artisanal mining of tantalum is often carried out in conflict zones, under hazardous conditions and with the use of forced labour being paid extremely low wages. It is worth noting that there are only a limited number of large-scale, mechanised operations currently producing tantalum.

The world’s largest tantalum mine, Western Australia’s Wodgina Mine, which supplied roughly half of the world’s tantalum ore between 1997 and 2003, ceased production in 2012 as a result of competition from lower-priced, smaller artisanal mines, such as those in the DRC. Most tantalum is refined in the USA, Germany, Japan and China.

Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, three countries named by the United Nations as smugglers of coltan originating in the Congo, and of using the revenues generated from the high price of coltan to sustain their war efforts, have denied these accusations. By one estimate, the Rwandan Army made at least US$250 million over a period of 18 months through the sale of coltan, even though no coltan is mined in Rwanda.

Because of the absence of a stable government and uncontrolled mining, rebels have overrun Congo’s national parks, clearing out large chunks of lush forests, resulting in erosion and the pollution of rivers and lakes. In addition, the poverty and starvation caused by the war have driven some miners and rebels to kill the parks’ endangered elephants and gorillas for food. In Central and West Africa, an estimated three to five million tonnes of bushmeat is obtained by killing wild animals (including gorillas) each year.

Since 1997, this relatively unknown war for the control of the coltan and diamond mines in the DRC has claimed more than four million lives through combat and through disease and malnutrition among the several millions of refugees created by the conflict.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly the Belgian Free State, the Belgian Congo, and Zaire, is a country cursed by its wealth which had been plundered by King Leopold II of the Belgians (1885-1908), and after Independence by its President Mubutu Sese Seko (1965-1997), who both accumulated considerable personal wealth and lived lavish lifestyles at the expense of the suffering masses.

The Belgian Free State, 46 times the size of Belgium, was personally owned by King Leopold (yes owned with the approval of 14 European countries and the USA) and he is responsible for the murder of an estimated ten million Congolese.

http://www.newsday.co.tt/commentary/0,197374.html
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