Coltan mining and ethics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Coltan is a metallic ore from which the very similar elements niobium, also known as columbium, and tantalum are extracted. Coltan mining specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been associated with human rights violations.

A piece of Coltan


The Coltan Industry is worth billions of dollars per year. Prices for coltan range between $50 and $200 per pound[1]- and has undergone a series of radical location shifts since its inception. In 2006, Australia, Brazil, and Canada produced 80% of the world’s coltan,[2] but as mining trends and costs change, so too does the industry’s centers. As of 2012, coltan’s main producers are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo via Rwanda, countries that produce about 66% of the world’s coltan.[3] Additional coltan reserves have been found all over the world on every continent except Antarctica. It is believed that sufficient reserves exist in developed countries, but for a variety of reasons, the burden of the world’s coltan needs is falling on undeveloped countries and conflict regions. Currently, coltan products are sold in private, unregulated markets,[4] unlike metals such as gold, copper, zinc, and tin. This means that there are no standards for mining operations and any safety procedures must come from the mine owners or their home countries.

The United Nations has taken an active role in assessing the state of the world’s coltan industry and has cited numerous countries with ethical violations[clarification needed] in relationship to coltan mining. Due to the nature of the mining and the number of ore deposits in conflict zones and third-world countries,[which?] coltan mining is a highly ethically contentious field.[5]

General ethical issues surrounding coltan mining[edit]

Human rights[edit]

While the situation in each coltan-producing country is different, there are some notable similarities in the countries whose practices come under fire. The first is the systematic exploitation of workers, particularly child workers. While coltan miners are often paid comparatively well, they do not earn a living wage and their working conditions are dangerous. According to the UN, the right to choice of employment and favorable working conditions is a basic human right.[6] However, because of the violence in many of the world’s conflict-producing regions, there is little choice in who becomes a coltan miner despite what people want. In Africa, mines are typically connected in some way to militia groups, while in South America, the coltan mining industry is operated by militia groups or by Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.[7][8] Due to these mines’ presence in national reserves, indigenous people are often forcibly involved with the mining operations- in Colombia, the Puinawai natives say that the coltan operations are “guns, pointed at the earth beneath their sacred mountain.[9]” Children are regularly forcibly recruited to work in the coltan mines and are guarded at gunpoint by the militia groups that have forced them into mining.[10] Ultimately, the coltan industry is not particularly amenable to fair working conditions for its laborers; instead, its largely illicit and unregulated nature provide ample opportunity for exploitation. The UN also holds the developed countries that support these markets in violation of human rights for allowing these violations to continue and for not fulfilling and promoting the human rights set forth in the 1948[11] Declaration.

Mining and economic development[edit]

Many of the burgeoning coltan producers are resource-rich developing countries with economies that are currently largely dependent on mining non-renewable resources. This indicates a danger attached to even clean coltan operations in developing countries. Groups that study developing nations such as Oxfam caution against a developing country putting much of its capital into mining operations, especially single mineral developments. While countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia were able to turn their mining operations into profitable industries, these experiences are not practical models that would support today’s developing countries’ reliance on mining operations for further economic development.[12] These countries’ dependence on mining creates tension due to the relatively small size of the developing countries and their exploitation of nonrenewable resources at the expense of their other natural resources.[13] This land tension typically leads to poor economic performance and political instability, which in turn creates the conflicts that make coltan an ethically-charged commodity.[14]

Environmental concerns[edit]

In addition to the human rights issues attached to the coltan industry, the mining process itself is environmentally hazardous. Coltan, like any metal, is a toxic contaminant. Since it is usually pan-mined, the mining process and slurry from this process contaminates the water supply and is harmful to the entire ecosystem. Furthermore, the mining process poses a direct threat to the environment via the destruction of stream beds and the surrounding forest. There is nothing sustainable about this kind of mining practice, but since the industry is unregulated, nothing is being done to stop it in the developing countries. Illicit mining frequently occurs in national parks and land reserves, such as the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the DRC and the Puinawai National Reserve in Colombia,[15] due to the deep forest cover these places provide. Coltan is mined using techniques developed for gold mining in the 1800s.[16] The work is hard and dangerous, with workers panning for gold in large craters in stream beds, with the average worker producing less than one kilogram of coltan a day. All told, this provides massive environmental detriments for relatively little return.

Even in the legal markets, coltan mining is environmentally dangerous. Developing nations often go through with mining operations because they need the capital these operations bring without thinking of the environmental impacts. Given that mining is an expensive venture to undertake, the returns are relatively low. Experts who study developing nations, such as those at Oxfam, have stated that the cost of mining on the environment can cause nearly permanent environmental damage,[17] which can leave a developing nation permanently poorer, and that support for mining should only be offered in countries that have a clearly defined plan for using the revenue gained from mining for the promotion of public health and infrastructure investments that will eventually allow them to become less resource-dependent.[18]

Specific ethical issues[edit]

Child labour[edit]

An EU report in 2011 raise issues of child labour in coltan mining in DRC, and in the recycling industry in Ghana and China.[19]


During 2009 and 2010, Africa has been producing more coltan than any other region, with Mozambique and Rwanda alone having produced 29% of the world’s coltan in 2010.[20] (this was due to the closing of the Wodinga and Greenbushes operations by Global Advanced Metals; these have been reopened in 2011[21]) During the period 2001–2007 the contribution of African countries to coltan production has been hovering around 20%.

Certain Regions in Africa have numerous rich coltan deposits and a history of structural and political violence and exploitation. This combination has led to a storied past of human rights violations in the mining industry. In particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the world’s largest producer of “blood coltan,[22]” coltan sourced in a conflict zone. Not all African coltan is from conflict zones, however; coltan exists in Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana, and Mozambique, as well as in the DRC. Certain countries have a more flagrant pattern of human rights violations than others, particularly the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of Congo[edit]

See: Ethics of Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The coltan mining operation of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the best-known human rights violator of all the global coltan industries. The main conflict is associated with the decisions made by technological companies using coltan and their impacts to human rights. Impacts to human rights from coltan extraction and production have dictated the health, economy, and social structure of the DRC. Conflict coltan mining got its start here and has garnered much international attention in recent years. Other African countries are involved in the DRC’s coltan crisis. In particular, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda have been accused of smuggling coltan over the borders to process in China or claiming DRC-sourced coltan as a product of their own companies by the UN; these claims were of course denied.[23] Furthermore, child labor is a common phenomenon in the DRC, with tens of thousands of children employed as miners, and the coltan mines is not an exception with children officially as young as twelve being accepted as workers in some mines.[24]

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) suggests mineral activity should cease in the highly protected areas of UNESCO world heritage sites, the proposed protected areas within conservation sites, areas with last remaining examples of unique ecosystems, and places where mining threatens the well-being of local communities and indigenous peoples. Coltan mining sites operate under boom-bust economies, not only stripping the mineral from the land, but also leading to environmental degradation in many ways. When mining towns depend on wealth from finding coltan, fewer people cultivate the land for agriculture purposes. Numerous instances of famine related to the mining operations contribute to increasingly unsustainable routes for land use. Besides the food use of Eastern Congo, coltan mining leads to less profit from the wildlife and forests via income from ecotourism, game ranching, or medicinal research. Moreover, mining threatens the national parks across the Congo.[25]


According to the United States Geographic Survey, Rwanda produced more than 25% of the world’s coltan in 2011,[26] more than what their coltan deposits should be able to provide. Rwandan coltan mining relies on mines in the DRC, some of which are in conflict areas and some of which are not. Of the ten large Rwandan mining companies, only four have taken any measures to verify that their product is not conflict-sourced.[27] Rwanda has also been implicated multiple times in Congolese coltan smuggling by the UN, along with Burundi and Uganda.[28] However, Uganda and Burundi do not report having a coltan industry, so those claims are even more difficult for the UN to verify. It is believed that about half of all Rwandan coltan comes from conflict regions in the DRC.[29] By 2015 Rwanda is producing more than 50% of the world production of tantalum.


Three countries in Asia are involved with coltan mining: China, Thailand, and Malaysia. The Thai and Malaysian coltan industries are based on tin mining, of which coltan is a byproduct. While these countries do have coltan reserves, they remain essentially untapped.


China is Asia’s largest coltan producer and the world’s largest coltan refiner, with at least a third of the world’s coltan being processed there.[30] Many countries export their raw coltan to China for further processing. The UN reports that many tons of coltan from the DRC are processed through China and are often mixed with samples from conflict-free regions to produce tainted coltan that is more difficult to source. This practice undermines the efforts made by countries with legislation restricting conflict materials, such as the United States and Canada. As Western markets have been reducing their demand for conflict coltan, the Chinese market has embraced it with open arms as Chinese firms have begun to carve footholds in the global minerals industry.[31] As a result, the Chinese coltan refining industry has contributed to the perpetuation of human rights violations and environmental destruction in many[clarification needed] of the world’s developing regions.[citation needed]

North America[edit]

Coltan mining is no longer a major industry in North America. Neither the United States nor Mexico has any coltan mining operations at all, and Canada’s coltan mining industry has been on the decline for years. Many Canadian mining companies are turning to Africa and focusing their operations there. Roughly 60% of the coltan mines in Africa, including in the DRC, have some percentage of Canadian backing but are not subject to Canada’s laws about environmental hazards and human rights violations.[32] Both Canada and the United States have passed acts that attempt to curtail the purchase of conflict-sourced materials,[33] including coltan, but these acts have been difficult to enforce.


The only North American country with a coltan mining industry is Canada. Canadian coltan mining has been a large operation in the past, in recent years, the Canadian coltan operations have been greatly reduced in scale; in 2009, Canada produced less than 4% of the world’s coltan supply. This is an economic issue, as Canadian regulations make coltan mining more expensive than it is in less stringent countries; this, coupled with the difficulty of the mining process makes Canadian coltan more expensive and lessens the demand for it. In recent years, Canada has become involved in the DRC’s coltan mining operation, with more than three hundred billion dollars’ worth of mining assets in the country in 2008.[34]

South and Central America[edit]

Currently, few South and Latin American countries have coltan mining operations. Those that do are relatively small and largely unregulated operations. The main exception is Brazil, one of the world’s largest coltan producers and home to a large refining industry as well. Though combined Africa produces more, Brazil alone is the world’s largest single coltan producer, having produced 23% of the world’s coltan in 2011.[35]


Colombia’s coltan mining industry is compounded by its involvement in numerous internal conflicts. The coltan industry in Colombia is currently illegal, which has not stopped guerilla forces and militia groups from mining the ore and selling it on the black market or shipping it through China. The Colombian government has done little in any attempt to regulate the industry. In 2010, plans were announced to auction off the rights to mine coltan in certain areas, but those plans were never completed and were dropped by the current administration.[36] Most of the coltan activity takes place in the deep jungle along the southeastern borders of Venezuela or Brazil, causing severe environmental repercussions. Colombia’s coltan mines are often located in its national parks and on indigenous territory, which forces the native population into the mining industry. Colombian coltan is tied to violence at every step of the process. The mines are typically owned by paramilitary groups or drug cartels such as the Sinloa cartel and the Cifuentes Villa family who use the same smugglers to move both drugs and coltan.[37] Colombian authorities have little control over the coltan mining region due to its size and density, and coltan is easily moved along the same routes as cocaine and emeralds, two of Colombia’s most heavily trafficked illegal goods.[38]

However, there are also examples of indigenous communities that obtain coltan through traditional methods which have no environmental impact,[citation needed] such as the Cubeos form the Colombian Vaupes.[citation needed] This has given them strength in their autonomy and resources to live sustainably in their lands, for they have invested in sustainable food security, renewable energy sources as well as other socially and environmentally healthy projects.[citation needed]


Although Venezuela is home to several large coltan deposits, coltan mining is illegal there. This has not stopped an illegal mining industry from developing along the Colombian border. Conflict areas have begun to develop due to the illegal coltan market, with the Venezuelan government having sent military patrols into the Venezuelan jungle to root out the miners and the Colombian cartel leaders who fund the operations.[39] The Venezuelan government’s attitude towards the future development of the country’s coltan industry has also been a cause for concern, as coltan is used in so-called “smart bombs” and the Venezuelan government has been in discussions with Iranian, Chinese, and Russian firms to further develop the country’s various minerals industries. As in Colombia, Venezuelan natives in the Paraguaza region have been imposed upon by the mining industry, and women and children have suffered from paramilitary violence from the coltan mine’s military supervisors.[40]

Potential solutions[edit]

Ensuring clean coltan[edit]

It is difficult for manufacturers to ensure that the coltan they use in their products is not from a conflict zone or otherwise unethically produced. Currently there is one process for verifying the origin of a coltan sample. This process, developed in Germany, involves creating an elemental ‘fingerprint’ via WD-X-ray fluorescence analysis and X-ray diffraction analysis to determine the composition and amounts of trace elements presence in the sample.[41] These results are then compared to the results of samples of known provenance, much like the Kimberly process for diamonds. This technique works for samples of mixed sources as well as pure coltan; however, it requires the sample fingerprints of all original sources on file. Using this technique, it is possible to identify the source of most coltan samples; as of 2010, almost 75% of the world’s coltan mines have samples on file.[42] However, this process is expensive and lengthy and while it has worked in Rwanda, adapting these methods to the industry in the DRC and convincing countries such as China to adopt these fingerprinting practices has proved difficult.[43] Both the United States and Canada have passed legislation that provides incentive for purchasing certified coltan and makes conflict material extralegal; however, because most coltan is processed in China and because China does not follow the certification processes, ensuring the purchase of clean coltan is very difficult.

Most of this change has been consumer-driven. As recently as 2004, the TIC had little interest in regulating conflict materials, citing that the impact of the conflict coltan industry on the world's coltan supply was not significant enough to be of concern.[44] Awareness campaigns in Western countries have been pushing manufacturers such as Apple and Intel to rely on more than just their suppliers' word that the coltan in their products is conflict-free.[45] This consumer interest has pushed the TIC to create a working group in 2009 to promote better standards for coltan mining.[46] This group works in conjunction with the UN and other NGOs to suggest ways to reduce the number of conflict mines and to promote transparency in the supply chain.[47] The TIC has attempted to create a process to deliver conflict-free coltan from Africa to refinery sites by using independent third-party companies to assess the mine sites and determine whether or not they are in violation of human rights.[48] Ultimately, however, the burden falls upon the companies directly involved in the supply chain to ensure that the danger of coltan mining practices is reduced.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Molinski 2012
  2. ^ Melcher et. al 2008, p.1
  3. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  4. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  5. ^[clarification needed]
  6. ^ UN 1948
  7. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  8. ^ Gómez 2012
  9. ^ Gómez 2012
  10. ^ Nest 2011
  11. ^ Rauxloh 2007, p. 305
  12. ^ Power 2002, p. 28
  13. ^ Willis and Murray 2011, p. 1
  14. ^ Willis and Murray 2011, p. 2
  15. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  16. ^ UN 2001
  17. ^ Power 2002, p. 33
  18. ^ Power 2002, p. 34
  19. ^ Opijnen, Marjon van and Joris Oldenziel 2010: Responsible Supply Chain Management, Potential success factors and challenges for addressing prevailing human rights and other CSR issues in supply chains of EU-based companies. Published 2011.
  20. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  21. ^ World’s largest tantalum operations back in business
  22. ^ Melcher, et al. 2008, p. 1
  23. ^ UN 2001
  24. ^ Nest 2001, p. 41
  25. ^ Montague, D. (2002). Stolen goods: coltan and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. SAIS Review, 22(1), 103-118.
  26. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  27. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  28. ^ UN 2004
  29. ^ Nest 2011, p. 26
  30. ^ USGS 2012, p. 162
  31. ^ Nest 2011, p. 6
  32. ^ Missakabo 2008
  33. ^ Marlow and El Akkad 2010b, p. 1
  34. ^ Missakabo 2008
  35. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  36. ^ Molinski 2012
  37. ^ Gómez 2012
  38. ^ Nest 2011, p. 68
  39. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  40. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  41. ^ Melcher, et al. 2008, p. 8
  42. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  43. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  44. ^ Wickens 2004
  45. ^ Marlow and El Akkad 2010a, p. 3
  46. ^ TIC 2012
  47. ^ TIC 2012
  48. ^ TIC 2011, p. 8
  • Diaz-Struck, Emilia and Joseph Poliszuk (2012) Venezuela emerges as new source of ‘conflict minerals.’ iWatch News (the Center for Public Integrity) 4 March 2012. Available Accessed 3 April 2012.
  • Essick, Kristy (2001) Guns, money, and cell phones. The Industry Standard Magazine, 11 June 2001. Available Accessed 10 May 2012.
  • Gómez, Ignacio (2012) Colombia’s black-market coltan tied to drug traffickers, paramilitaries. iWatch News (the Center for Public Integrity) 4 March 2012. Available Accessed 4 April 2012.
  • Lublinski, Jan, Monika Griebeler, and Cyrus Farviar (2010) Coltan mines to be ‘fingerprinted’, German scientists say. Deutsche Welle, 13 August 2010. Available,,5907446,00.html. Accessed 5 April 2012.
  • Marlow, Iain and Omar El Akkad (2010a) Smartphones: blood stains at our fingertips. Toronto: The Globe and Mail, 3 December 2010. Available Accessed 4 April 2012.
  • Marlow, Iain and Omar El Akkad (2010b) Momentum building to tackle coltan mining. Toronto: The Globe and Mail, 6 December 2010. Available Accessed 4 April 2012.
  • Melcher, Frank, Maria Sitnikova, Torsten Graupner, Nicola Martin, Thomas Oberthür, Friedhelm Henjes-Kunst, Eike Gäbler, Axel Gerdes, Helene Brätz, Don Davis, and Stijn Dewaele (2008) Fingerprinting of conflict minerals: columbite-tantalite (“coltan”) ores. SGA (Society for Geology Applied to Mineral Deposits) News 23: 1, 7-13.
  • Missakabo, Mikhael (2008) Footprints and paradoxes of Canadian mining in the DRC. Pambazuka News: Pan-African Voices for Freedom and Justice 407.
  • Molinski, Dan (2012) Colombia to wage battle against illegal coltan mining. New York: The Wall Street Journal, 12 March 2012. Available Accessed 9 May 2012.
  • Nest, Michael (2011) Coltan. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.
  • Power, Michael (2002) Digging to development?: a historical look at mining and economic development. Report. Oxfam America: Boston, MA.
  • Rauxloh, Regina (2007) A call for the end of impunity for multinational corporations. Texas Wesleyan Law Review 14:297-315.
  • Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (TIC) (2011) Update on conflict free supply chain management issues. TIC Bulletin 148: 5-9.
  • Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center (TIC) (2012) Working group. Online document. Available Accessed 10 May 2012.
  • United Nations (1948) Universal declaration of human rights. Available Accessed 11 May 2012.
  • United Nations (2001) Security council condemns illegal exploitation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s natural resources. Press release. UN. 3 May 2001. Available Accessed 9 May 2012.
  • United Nations (2004) Coltan. Online document. Available Accessed 7 May 2012.
  • United States Geographic Survey (2012) Tantalum. Mineral commodity summaries. Report. pp. 162–163.
  • Wickens, Judy (2004) Developments in the tantalum market. Presentation presented at the Minor Metals Conference, October 2004.
  • Willis, Richard and Warwick Murray (2011) Breaking the resource curse: the cases of New Zealand and Australia. Australian Studies 2: 1-17.

External links[edit]