The battle of Coltan

If you haven’t heard the word yet, Coltan is a metallic ore found in almost every popular electronics device used today.   It’s mined predominantly in Brazil, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Canada also has a major supply).

In 2000, with the introduction of Sony’s Playstation 2, Coltan prices spiked. The increasing popularity and sophistication of cell phones, computers and video game systems continued to propel the ore’s current and prospective value, and it became a major player in commodity trading and manufacturing. For more developed countries, like Australia and Brazil, all this meant was a welcome cash cow to export to China, but the situation was much more complicated in the DRC.

Like most commodities in Africa that the West sets its sights on (diamonds, ivory, human labour, etc.), Coltan encouraged the chaos and self-destructive patterns in the DRC; a country whose ongoing civil war has caused more casualties than any war since World War II (5.4 million).

Coltan became another catalyst (and bargaining tool) in the war to win the country, and rival militias forced men, women and children to work in the mines and accelerate the extraction process.

“While minerals from the Congo have enriched your life, they have often brought violence, rape and instability to my home country,” said Congolese writer Delly Mawazo in a petition to Apple. “That’s because those armed groups fighting for control of these mineral resources use murder, extortion and mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, which helps them secure control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas.”

The international community did eventually take notice. The American Dodd-Frank financial reform act has a clause forcing American companies to notify the SEC if they use any conflict materials.

But for all its good intentions, the measure actually made it all worse. Now the DRC’s legitimate Coltan mines are suffering  because fewer tech companies want to attach themselves to conflict materials (for both legal and financial reasons), and some are even seeking alternatives to the mineral. All this speculation has made the value of Coltan drop, which is great for electronics manufacturers like China, but devastating for the DRC.

It’s difficult to remain conscious of where our goods come from, and how they get to our hands. We forget about raw materials and slave labour, which is still rampant all over the world. The best most of us can do is talk about things like this so others are also conscious. Ultimately, the U.S. should have consulted the DRC before trying to appear benevolent.

More, plus a great doc., here.

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