Coltan (short for columbite–tantalite and known industrially as tantalite) is a dull black metallic ore from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral in coltan is columbite (after niobium's original American name, columbium), and the tantalum-dominant mineral is tantalite.
Tantalum from coltan is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors, used in electronic products. Coltan mining has been cited as helping to finance serious conflict, for example the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Production and supply
Approximately 71% of global tantalum supply in 2008 was met by newly mined product, 20% from recycling, and the remainder from tin slag and inventory.
Tantalum minerals are mined in Brazil, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. 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, Uganda, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan, and Brazil. A significant reserve of coltan was discovered in 2009 in western Venezuela. In 2009 the Colombian government announced coltan reserves had been found in Colombia's eastern provinces.
|metric tons of tantalum mined|
|1990-1993: U.S. Geological Survey, "1994 Minerals Yearbook" (MYB), "COLUMBIUM (NIOBIUM) AND TANTALUM" By Larry D. Cunningham,
Table 10; 1994-1997: MYB 1998, Table 10; 1998-2001: MYB 2002, p. 21.13; 2002-2003: MYB 2004, p. 20.13; 2004: MYB 2008, p. 52.12;
2005-2009: MYB 2009, p. 52.13. USGS did not report data for other countries (China, Kazakhstan, Russia, etc.) owing to data uncertainties.
|NA Not available. -- Zero.|
|% of global mined tantalum production|
Use and demand
Coltan is used primarily for the production of tantalum capacitors, used in many electronic devices. Many sources mention coltan's importance in the production of cell phones, but this is an over-simplification, as tantalum capacitors are used in almost every kind of electronic device.
It is also used in high temperature alloys for air and land based turbines. The upsurge in electronic products over the past decade resulted in a peak in late 2000, lasting a few months. In 2005 the price was still down at early 2000 levels.
The United States Geological Survey estimates that tantalum production capacity could meet global demand, which is growing at four percent annually, at least until the year 2013.
Countries rich in resources such as Congo have been affected by the phenomenon referred to as “resource curse”. “Resource curse” is used to describe the situation when countries that are rich in resources have poorer economic development than countries that have fewer resources. This phenomenon does not allow for the Congolese to have a balanced and sustained development. It also indicates that there is a clear relationship between the wealth of resources “…and the likelihood of weak democratic development, corruption, and civil war.” Such high levels of corruption lead to great political instability and issues because whoever controls the assets (mainly the political leaders, and the government in Congo) can use it to their benefit. These resources can generate wealth for these people which can be used to keep “…themselves in power, either through legal means, or coercive ones (e.g. funding militias)”. The beginning of coltan as an important mineral, crucial to technological products “occurred as warlords and armies in the eastern Congo converted artisanal mining operations…into slave labour regimes to earn hard currency to finance their militias”. As much of eastern Congo has been under the control of Rwanda, Rwanda became a major exporter of coltan benefiting from the weakness of the Congolese government.
Coltan is made into a component for many digital products such as cell phones. The digital age has caused issues regarding power relations and violence between individuals from the Congo and the rest of the world. An example of uneven power relations was in late 2000, when there was a great demand for the PlayStation 2. This demand caused the price of coltan to increase very quickly and after demand for the gaming system fell, so did the price of coltan. The price hike of coltan had made the violence in eastern Congo a lot worse, as the violence was being directed at everyday "social production". Since there is a growing need for new technologies, the demand for coltan is growing substantially.
For individuals living within the Congo, mining is the easiest source of income available, as the work is consistent and regular, even if just for $1/day. However, coltan is laborious to mine, as it takes around “three day’s march into the forests to scratch out the ore with hand tools and pan it … about 90 percent of young men are doing this now…”. Research conducted by anthropologists has revealed reasons as to why the Congolese leave the farming industry. Congolese individuals can try to work in places like farms, but they need money quickly and cannot wait for their crops to grow. As farmers, they face other obstacles as well. There are no roads for people to travel on, making it extremely difficult for them to get their product to rural markets, and they have a high chance of their harvest being taken by militias and the Congolese army. Once their food is taken away or they no longer have the capacity to grow food, they need to resort to mining in order to sustain themselves and provide for families. The organized mines however, are usually run by corrupt groups like militias. There are few tools available for the Congolese to efficiently mine for coltan, with no safety procedures or past experience working in mines. There is no government aid or intervention in many unethical and abusive circumstances. Coltan mining is viewed by miners as a way of providing for themselves in an area where war and internal conflict are widespread and the government has no concern for citizens' welfare.
Ethics of mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Conflicts, including the Rwandan occupation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made it difficult for the DRC to exploit its coltan reserves. Mining of the mineral is mainly artisanal and small-scale. A 2003 UN Security Council report 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.
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. A United Nations committee investigating the plunder of gems and minerals in the Congo listed in its final report approximately 125 companies and individuals involved in business activities breaching international norms. Companies accused of irresponsible corporate behavior are for example the Cabot Corporation, Eagle Wings Resources International Forrest Group and OM Group.
Coltan smuggling likely provides income for the military occupation of Congo, as well as prolonged civil conflict. To many[who?], this raises ethical questions akin to those of blood diamonds. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several processors such as Cabot Corp (USA) have decided to forgo central African coltan altogether, relying on other sources.
Much coltan from the DRC is being exported to China for processing into electronic-grade tantalum powder and wires. Coltan imports from DRC to Europe are usually directed to Central/Eastern Europe and Russia. These cargoes mostly travel through the route Dar es Salaam/Tanzania-Piraeus (Greece) and then they are further distributed through Balkans. Nova Dies, an offshore consortium based in British Virgin Islands, mostly controls the trans-Balkan transportation network. As the cargoes imported through this network largely concern unprocessed coltan mined in uncontrolled artisanal mines, this export route is assumed as a long-term threat for DRC economy given that it hinders the development of DRC based processing infrastructure. Reported estimates of the Congo's fraction of the world's coltan reserves range from 64% and up.  but the higher numbers are difficult to trace to reliable data. Estimates from professional bodies like the British Geological Survey land at lower values, i.e. a 9% total for Central Africa. Tantalum, the primary mineral extracted from Coltan, is also mined from other sources, and Congolese coltan represented around 10% of world production in recent years.
The Eastern Mountain Gorilla's population has diminished as well. Miners are far from food sources and have been hunting gorillas. The gorilla population has been seriously reduced and is now critically endangered. In Central and West Africa an estimated 3–5 million tons of bushmeat is obtained by killing wild animals (including gorillas) each year.
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.
The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre in Belgium, the country that colonized 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.
For economic rather than ethical reasons, a shift is also being seen from traditional sources such as Australia, towards new suppliers such as Egypt. This may have been brought about by the bankruptcy of the world's biggest supplier, Australia's Sons of Gwalia. The operations previously owned by Gwalia in Wodgina and Greenbushes continue to operate in some capacity.
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|Look up coltan in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Columbite-Tantalite.|
- UN Coltan Explainer
- High-Tech Genocide in Congo, by Keith Harmon Snow.
- Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Congo's Bloody Coltan (Video)
- ABC Late Night Live interview with Michael Nest Coltan (Audio)
- Blood Coltan (Video)
- Coltan, Gorillas and cellphones
- 'Congo's Tragedy: The War The World Forgot' by The Independent broken link, but also available at UK Feminista
- Cellphones fuel Congo conflict
- Human cost of mining in DR Congo
- Coltan: a new blood mineral
- Conflict Minerals Company Rankings, technology company classification surveying their compromise to avoid the use of "conflict minerals". Report from Raise Hope for Congo information campaign, of Enough Project.