Coltan: A Catalyst for Capitalism’s Human and Mineral Exploitation
By Anna Ostermeier
Though many Western consumers may be unaware of it, the implications of their choices and the impacts of capitalist societies in general reach far across the globe. The Anthropocene, a new proposed geologic epoch in which humans are the main force driving environmental change, can be understood through the lens of the coltan industry. This lens coincides with the Eco-Marxist Narrative of the Anthropocene, which asserts that the capitalist system has an unsustainable metabolism, with capital as the driving force.1 With the rise of mass consumerism of electronics in Western countries like the United States, coltan has become a prominent conflict mineral with environmental, social, and economic impacts. This threefold impact emphasizes the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch in which social and economic issues relating to inequality, violence, and mass consumerism have an impact on how humans interact with the environment, and in which capitalism is the agent of the Anthropocene.
Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is an ore containing the valuable and heat resistant metal Tantalum.2 Tantalum is useful for storing and releasing an electrical charge, which makes it a prime material for the small capacitors required for cellphones, laptops, and many other popular electronics.3 Since the 1940s, when tantalum was first utilized for production of capacitors, demand for the metal has increased and accelerated with the electronics boom of the 1990s.4 Consequently, demand for coltan ore has grown at 5% per year since 1990, with a spike in prices occurring in 2000 when production could not keep up with demand.5,6 As a result of this dramatic increase in demand, people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which contains much of the world’s coltan reserves, rushed to make a living from coltan ore mining.7 However, social, economic and environmental issues have arisen due to pre-existing political circumstances in the DRC and lack of socially and environmentally responsible sourcing by electronics companies.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, coltan mining and export feeds the economy of its civil wars, and the coltan industry is ultimately reliant on demand for electronics from wealthy, capitalist countries. The Kivu region, rich in coltan deposits, is particularly affected because militias control the mines and profit from them.8 In turn, the profits made from exporting refined coltan (tantalum) abroad motivate continuing violence for control and finance the militias’ drug and weapon purchasing.9 Militias are composed of various warring factions, which can originate in the DRC or come from neighboring countries including Rwanda and Burundi.10 As a result of mineral exploitation by power-seeking militias, it is estimated that more than 5 million people have been killed, 40% of whom were women and children, and at least as many have been displaced.11 These conflicts over coltan deposits are also linked to unprecedented amounts of sexual violence, which is used as a weapon of war to gain control over local populations- particularly those reluctant to pay “taxes” on coltan to militias.12 However, violence is not the only hardship for Congolese in the coltan trade.
Along with facing constant fear of militia violence, inhabitants of coltan mining areas of the DRC also face crippling poverty. While one may expect that the coltan boom would economically benefit an area with so many deposits, in reality the coltan boom has caused increased poverty, morbidity, and mortality for many inhabitants of the Kivu region.13 These issues are mostly due the militia violence discussed in the previous paragraph, where armed factions and the local military demand taxes from coltan mined in the areas they patrol.14 The average Congolese coltan laborer receives only about $1 USD per day, often facing many occupational hazards.15 Though the work is dangerous and low-paying, many Congolese are threatened with violence if they are disobedient to factions, and cannot stop mining because they have no other source of livelihood.16 The lives of Congolese in mining areas contrasts starkly with the comfortable lives of many consumers in Western capitalist societies, illustrating how the constant appetite of capitalism for exploitation of resources and people has widened the gap between the rich and poor.
It is important to realize that while coltan is often processed in the DRC to extract its tantalum content, the tantalum is exported abroad and the peoples of the DRC often do not benefit from the electronics that contain the precious metal- a phenomenon called the “digital divide”.17 Much of the media that has covered the DRC coltan conflicts seems to point to the idea that undeveloped countries like the DRC are incapable of solving issues internally. Rather, they point to Western electronics companies, consumers, and governments as the potential source of solutions. The U.S. Catholic magazine suggests that “Western governments have to do a better job of policing commerce, cutting off commodity flows when a resource export market leads not to overall development…but only to violence and economic and environmental degradation”.18 It seems the media coverage of coltan conflicts often involves a call to action to Western readers in order to acknowledge the widening gap between those mining the coltan and Western electronics companies and consumers who benefit from its exploitation.
In regards to violence fueled by the coltan industry, the media of the 2000s once again seems to look towards Westerners as the source of the solution, as consumerism seems to contribute largely to the problem. The U.S. Catholic Magazine even proclaimed to readers that “the connection between [them] and a brutal civil war in Africa may only be as far away as [their] nearest Target or Wal-Mart”.19 This suggests that the media of the time pushed back against the benefits of modern technologies like cellphones and how the global market has allowed their easy production. In 2009, BBC News suggested that such conflicts also force global electronics companies to face uncomfortable questions in regards to socially and environmentally responsible sourcing.20 While there is a geographic disconnect between those who benefit from coltan mining (electronics users in developed countries) and those who mine it, it seems that media outlets function to make electronics users more aware of sourcing and its implications for the mining location and its inhabitants.
Due to increased exploitation of coltan deposits, often located in protected areas, the coltan industry has also had significant environmental impacts. One particular center for coltan mining is the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.21 While parts of the park are accessible to wardens and rangers, the area monitored is only about 5-10% (of a total 6,000 square kilometers), with the other 90-95% controlled by armed factions.22 Coltan mining has impacts that largely concern biodiversity, such as deforestation caused by building and running camps for miners as well as de-barking trees to create trays used in coltan production.23 With an influx of miners to areas previously uninhabited by humans, organisms in the area are affected by the sustenance needs of the new population. One of the largest conservation concerns for the area is hunting for “bush meat” by miners, which endangers keystone species like apes and elephants.24 Consequently, Grauer’s Gorilla is now facing extinction due to commercial hunting in mining areas where this was not previously an issue.25 While these impacts would perhaps be more justifiable if miners actually benefitted from mining, the conditions of their labor and low wages means the miners and the environment suffer while militias and overseas consumers benefit. Once again, there is a geographic disconnect between where demand for electronics comes from, and where the environmental impacts of mining coltan for those electronics occur. Though the media has covered the environmental impacts, especially those relating to endangered species, consumers of electronics do not personally see or feel the impacts caused by their own country’s economic system, capitalism.
The digital age has brought many new and useful technologies, but these innovations bring their own unintended environmental, social, and economic consequences. Though these consequences may be unintended, modern media coverage of coltan seems to have had a significant influence on consumer choices, which have put pressure on electronics companies. Apple, whose phones appear most in the bestselling smartphone list of April 2015, has taken steps towards more socially responsible sourcing, likely due to pressure from consumers and the media.26 After a 5-year effort, Apple claims 100% of their identified smelters and refiners are participating in an independent third-party conflict mineral audit program.27 Therefore, while Western consumers are not necessarily all-powerful in affecting change in coltan production, they can illustrate how powerful media can be in swaying the popular opinion, and ultimately practices of large companies. Though there is a geographic disconnect between coltan production and consumption, the media can, in some ways, bridge this disconnect by revealing its environmental, social, and economic issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne: The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: The Geological Turn (Routledge Publishing, 2015)
- Sutherland, Ewan, “Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone,” Social Science Electronic Publishing, Social Science Research Network (2011): 7.
- Hayes, Karen, and Richard Burge. “Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo: How Tantalum-using Industries Can Commit to the Reconstruction of the DRC,” Cambridge: Fauna & Flora International (2003): 11.
- Ibid., 15.
- Sutherland, “Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone,” 15.
- Hayes & Burge, “Coltan Mining the Democratic Republic of Cong,” 11.
- Ibid., 11.
- Jackson, Stephen. “Making a Killing: Criminality & Coping in the Kivu War Economy.” Review of African Political Economy Vol. 29 (ROAPE Publications, 2002): 115.
- Hayes & Burge, “Coltan Mining the Democratic Republic of Cong,” 26.
- Sutherland, “Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone,” 5.
- Ibid., 11.
- Jackson, “Making a Killing,” 527.
- Allen, Karen. “Human Cost of Mining in DR Congo,” BBC News (2009)
- Sutherland, “Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone,” 8.
- Allen, “Human Cost of Mining”
- Park, Jacob, “Connecting the Electronic Dots: Ecological and Social Dimensions of the Global Information Revolution.],” Business and Professional Ethics Journal 24, no. 1 (2005): 230.
- Clarke, Kevin. “Wouldn’t You Just Kill for That Cell Phone?” U.S. Catholic (2003): 39.
- Ibid., 39.
- Allen, “Human Cost of Mining”
- Redmond, Ian. Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust : The Impact of Coltan Mining on Gorillas and Other Wildlife in Eastern DR Congo. (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, Born Free Foundation, 2001), 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Hayes & Burge, “Coltan Mining the Democratic Republic of Cong,” 11.
- Elmer-DeWitt, Philip, “Here Are the 10 Top-selling Smartphones for April,” Fortune (2015)
- “Labor & Human Rights: Changing the Landscape of Mineral Mining,” Apple (2015)
Allen, Karen. “Human Cost of Mining in DR Congo.” BBC News. September 02, 2009.
Clarke, Kevin. “Wouldn’t You Just Kill for That Cell Phone?” U.S. Catholic, February 2003, 39. ProQuest Research Library.
Elmer-DeWitt, Philip. “Here Are the 10 Top-selling Smartphones for April.” Fortune. June 2, 2015.
Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: The Geological Turn. Routledge, 2015.
Hayes, Karen, and Richard Burge. Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo: How Tantalum-using Industries Can Commit to the Reconstruction of the DRC. Cambridge: Fauna & Flora International, 2003
Jackson, Stephen. “Making a Killing: Criminality & Coping in the Kivu War Economy.” In Review of African Political Economy, 516-36. Vol. 29. ROAPE Publications, 2002. JSTOR.
“Labor & Human Rights: Changing the Landscape of Mineral Mining.” Apple. December 21, 2015.
Park, Jacob. “Connecting the Electronic Dots: Ecological and Social Dimensions of the Global Information Revolution.” Business and Professional Ethics Journal 24, no. 1 (2005): 225-36. doi:10.5840/bpej2005241/212.
Redmond, Ian. Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust : The Impact of Coltan Mining on Gorillas and Other Wildlife in Eastern DR Congo. Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, Born Free Foundation, 2001.
Sutherland, Ewan. Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone. Social Science Electronic Publishing. Social Science Research Network. April 11, 2011.