Coltan mining and ethics

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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 a year. Prices for coltan ranged between $50 and $200 per pound in 2012[1]-and have spiked much higher in the past when supplies were scarce, when the PlayStation 2 was first introduced. In 2006, Australia, Brazil, and Canada produced 80% of the world's coltan,[2] but as of 2012, coltan's main producers are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mozambique, and once again include the Democratic Republic of Congo (via smuggling into Rwanda).[3] Additional coltan reserves have been found on every continent except Antarctica. For a variety of reasons, though, the task of supplying world coltan needs has fallen on conflict regions and underdeveloped countries. Coltan products are sold in private, unregulated markets,[4] unlike commodity metals like gold, copper, zinc, and tin. No standards are set or enforced for mining operations and devising safety procedures is the responsibility of mine operators may not prioritize worker well-being.

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 reference to coltan mining. Due to the nature of the mining and the concentration of ore deposits in conflict zones, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo but also Colombia, for example, coltan mining raises many ethical issues.

General ethical issues surrounding coltan mining[edit]

Human rights[edit]

Some notable similarities link mining practices in countries where they have come under fire:

  • systematic exploitation of workers.
  • while coltan miners are often well paid compared to others in their communities, they generally still do not earn a living wage by Western standards
  • dangerous working conditions, like any mining operation.

The UN has declared a right to choose one's employment and has also called safe working conditions a basic human right.[5] However, the violence in the regions that produce conflict coltran gives the population little choice about whether to mine coltan. In Central Africa, for example, coltan mines are typically connected to militias. In South America the coltan mining industry is operated by militia groups or by drug cartels.[6][7]

Coltan mines in national reserves often forcibly use indigenous people for their operations. In Colombia the Puinawai natives call the coltan mines “guns, pointed at the earth beneath [the] sacred mountain."[8] Children are regularly forcibly recruited at gunpoint to work in coltan mines by militia groups.[9] Ultimately, coltan mining is not particularly amenable to fair working conditions, and its largely illicit and unregulated nature provide ample opportunity for exploitation.

The UN also considers developed countries that support conflict minerals violators of human rights for allowing the violations to continue rather than fulfilling and promoting the human rights set forth in the 1948[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

Environmental concerns[edit]

In addition to the human rights issues attached to the coltan industry, the mining process itself can be environmentally hazardous, although coltan itself is not toxic. Since it is usually pan-mined, the mining process and slurry from this process can contaminate water and may be harmful to ecosystems, although since no chemicals are added to process the minerals it is relatively benign. Some people question the sustainability of artisinal mining, but miners often are very poor and have few other options to earn a living. Illegal mining in national parks and land reserves can be especially damaging, such as the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the DRC and the Puinawai National Reserve in Colombia,[14] due to the deep forest cover these places provide. Coltan is mined using techniques developed for gold mining in the 1800s.[15] The work is hard and dangerous, with workers panning for coltan in large craters in stream beds, with the average worker producing less than one kilogram of coltan a day. All told, artisinal mining can be environmentally damaging 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 sometimes low. Civil societies who study developing nations, such as Oxfam, have stated that the cost of mining on the environment can cause nearly permanent environmental damage,[16] 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.[17]

Specific ethical issues[edit]

Child labour[edit]

An EU report in 2011 raised issues of child labour in coltan mining in DRC, and in the recycling industry in Ghana and China.[18]


During 2009 and 2010, Africa produced more coltan than any other region, with Mozambique and Rwanda alone producing 29% of the world's coltan in 2010.[19] This was due to the closing of the Wodinga and Greenbushes operations by Global Advanced Metals; these have been reopened in 2011[20] 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,[21]” 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

Coltan mining operators in the DRC are the most-publicized violators of human rights in the global coltan industry. Decisions made by technological companies using coltan, and the impact of those decisions on human rights, have dictated the health, economy, and social structure of the DRC. Conflict coltan mining began in the Congo; Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda have been accused of smuggling coltan out of the DRC for processing in China, then telling the UN that the smuggled coltan from the DRC is from their own domestic production. They have denied these claims.[22] Child labor is common in Congolese artisanal mining. Tens of thousands of children work as miners; children as young as twelve working in some mines have repeatedly been documented.[23]

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says mineral activity should stop in the UNESCO World Heritage sites and in proposed protected areas within conservation sites, in areas with last remaining examples of unique ecosystems, and in places where mining threatens the well-being of local communities and indigenous peoples.

Coltan mines operate under boom-bust economics and not only strip the mineral from the land, but also cause environmental degradation. In mining towns that depend on coltan for their wealth, fewer people cultivate the land. Numerous instances of famine related to the mining operations contribute to increasingly unsustainable types for land use. Besides the harm it does to food security in the eastern Congo, coltan mining is inimicial to land uses such as ecotourism, game ranches, and medical research which could possibly provide better incomes and profit from the wildlife and forest land. Mining threatens the national parks across the Congo.[24]


According to the United States Geographic Survey, Rwanda exported more than 25% of the world's coltan in 2011,[25] which their coltan deposits should not be able to make possible. Rwandan coltan comes from mines in the DRC, usually in the conflict areas adjacent to the Rwandan border. Only four of the ten largest Rwandan mining companies have taken any measures to verify whether their product is conflict-sourced.[26] Rwanda has been implicated multiple times in smuggling Congolese coltan by the UN investigators, as have Burundi and Uganda.[27] Uganda and Burundi however do not export coltan, so the UN has found it difficult to verify that the smuggling is still taking place. About half of exported Rwandan coltan comes from conflict regions in the DRC.[28] In 2015 more than 50% of the world production of tantalum came from Rwanda.


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 small 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] Both Canada and the United States have passed acts that attempt to curtail the purchase of conflict-sourced materials,[32] 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 that country in 2008.[33]

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.[34]


Colombia's coltan mining industry is involved in numerous internal conflicts and is currently illegal. This has not stopped guerilla forces and militia groups from mining the ore and selling it on the black market or shipping it to China.

The Colombian government has made little 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.[35] Most of the coltan activity takes place in the deep jungle areas along the southeastern borders of Venezuela or Brazil, causing severe environmental repercussions. Colombia's coltan mines are often located in 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 Sinaloa cartel and the Cifuentes Villa family, who use the same smugglers to move both drugs and coltan.[36] 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.[37]


Parguaza range, green at top of image

Venezuela has several large coltan deposits, but coltan mining has been illegal there for many years, although this changed in 2016. Still illegal mining has developed along the Colombian border. Conflict areas have begun to develop due to the illegal mines, and the Venezuelan government has sent military patrols into the jungle to root out the miners and the Colombian cartel leaders who fund their operations.[38] As in Colombia, indigenous Venezuelans in the Paraguaza region have suffered from the mining industry, and people have suffered violence from the coltan mine's military supervisors.[39]

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 present in the sample.[40] 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 having sample fingerprints for all original coltan 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.[41] However, the process is expensive and lengthy and while it has worked in Rwanda, adapting these fingerprinting techniques to the DRC mining industry and convincing countries such as China to adopt these methods has been difficult.[42] Both the United States and Canada have passed legislation that provides incentives for using certified coltan and making conflict materials extralegal, but because most coltan is processed in China and China does not use the certification processes, avoiding conflict coltan has been very difficult.

Most of this change has been consumer-driven. As recently as 2004, the TIC had little interest in regulating conflict materials, and said that the impact of the conflict coltan on the world's coltan supply did not warrant concern.[43] Awareness campaigns in Western countries have been pushed manufacturers such as Apple and Intel to rely on more than just the word of their suppliers that the coltan used in their products is conflict-free.[44] This consumer interest pushed the TIC to create a working group in 2009 to promote better standards for coltan mining.[45] The group works with the UN and with other NGOs to suggest ways to reduce the number of conflict mines and promote transparency in the supply chain.[46] 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 mining sites and determine whether or not they violate of human rights.[47] Ultimately, however, the burden falls upon the companies directly involved in the supply chain to reduce the prevalence of dangerous coltan mining practices.

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. ^ UN 1948
  6. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  7. ^ Gómez 2012
  8. ^ Gómez 2012
  9. ^ Nest 2011
  10. ^ Rauxloh 2007, p. 305
  11. ^ Power 2002, p. 28
  12. ^ Willis and Murray 2011, p. 1
  13. ^ Willis and Murray 2011, p. 2
  14. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  15. ^ UN 2001
  16. ^ Power 2002, p. 33
  17. ^ Power 2002, p. 34
  18. ^ Opijnen, Marjon van; and Joris Oldenziel (2011). "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".
  19. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  20. ^ World’s largest tantalum operations back in business Archived 2012-04-23 at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ Melcher, et al. 2008, p. 1
  22. ^ UN 2001
  23. ^ Nest 2001, p. 41
  24. ^ Montague, D. (2002). Stolen goods: coltan and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. SAIS Review, 22(1), 103-118.
  25. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  26. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  27. ^ UN 2004
  28. ^ Nest 2011, p. 26
  29. ^ USGS 2012, p. 162
  30. ^ Nest 2011, p. 6
  31. ^ Missakabo 2008
  32. ^ Marlow and El Akkad 2010b, p. 1
  33. ^ Missakabo 2008
  34. ^ USGS 2012, p. 163
  35. ^ Molinski 2012
  36. ^ Gómez 2012
  37. ^ Nest 2011, p. 68
  38. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  39. ^ Diaz-Struck and Poliszuk 2012
  40. ^ Melcher, et al. 2008, p. 8
  41. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  42. ^ Lublinski et al. 2010
  43. ^ Wickens 2004
  44. ^ Marlow and El Akkad 2010a, p. 3
  45. ^ TIC 2012
  46. ^ TIC 2012
  47. ^ TIC 2011, p. 8

Further reading[edit]

  • 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]