In recent years the ‘obscure mineral’ coltan—geological name Columbite Tantalite—has become widely known and politicised for being closely connected with the violence of armed groups in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Similar to campaigns about ‘blood diamonds’ in connection to conflicts in West Africa, the term ‘conflict minerals’ became somewhat synonymous with conflict in the DRC. In various campaigns around the world the western consumer use of mobile phones and laptops was linked to the horrific levels of violence, rape and death occurring in the DRC. An Australian scholar, Michael Nest, embarked on a research project to investigate the story of this infamous mineral. His findings can be found in his fascinating book Coltan.
Perhaps most interesting for Australians is Nest’s discovery of the link between Australia and the DRC as leading suppliers of coltan/tantalite to the world market. According to 2008 figures, Australia was the world’s top producer of tantalite (30% of supplies), followed by the DRC (21%), Brazil (14%), China (8%) and Ethiopia (8%). Australia’s production all came from the Wodinga Tantalum mine in Western Australia, which closed in 2008 due to the impact on prices of the GFC and cheap coltan from Central Africa. It reopened in 2011 and then closed again in 2012, due to a ‘softening global demand’.
So how did a mineral found in both Australia and the DRC become such a symbol of death and destruction in the heart of Africa? Nest explains that tantalum, the metal extracted from tantalite bearing ores, is commonly used in the world’s mobile phones, lap tops, iPods, Nintendo’s, Xboxes and other electronic devices. Tantalum helps enable the ‘miniaturisation’ of electronic products. In 2000 the price of tantalite ore soared, in response to the fact that much of the supply was tied up in long-term contracts. In response, speculators and traders sought to get access to tantalite/coltan outside of the long- term contracts, causing a heightening in prices on the ‘spot market’. This demand resulted in a ‘coltan rush’ in the DRC. In 2000, local people reportedly moved en masse to coltan deposits and started to dig. The media first began reporting that warlords in the DRC were profiting from coltan in 2001. But once Congolese coltan flooded the market, the price returned to pre-boom levels.
Most of the world’s coltan/tantalite comes from modern large-scale mines which abide by safety and environmental standards (such as in Australia). However, in the DRC the situation is very different and this explains in part why Coltan is connected to conflict there. Nest explains;
Weak state institutions are incapable of enforcing property rights or contracts. Production of coltan is carried out by low-paid artisanal and small-scale miners in isolated mines. Trade involves multiple parties, transportation in the initial stages from the mine to traders over land-based routes, and exchange occurs in the absence of written contracts. The control of different mining functions by specific ethnic groups has created tensions that have fuelled local-level violence, as well as the larger regional conflict that engulfed eastern DRC during the Congo wars [and this] is because ethnicity is directly linked to economic interests related to land and minerals. These features facilitate entry and participation in the coltan supply chain by armed groups because production and trade can be easily controlled through violence.
The continuing conflict and violence in the DRC isn’t only about coltan and natural resources and thus won’t be fully resolved by changes in the international Congolese coltan trade. A long history of several complex inter-related factors, such as ethnicity, land ownership, citizenship, governance and regional politics all contribute to insecurity. The worldwide advocacy over coltan helped to bring global attention to a much-neglected conflict and the connection between mobile phone users and conflict helped to engage people in activism. Other revenue sources for Congolese armed groups, such as, gold, tin, manganese, the control of international borders etc. didn’t lend themselves to promotion in the same manner. For example, the Enough Project was successful in lobbying for the passing of the Dodd-Frank Act 2010 (PDF) in the USA.
The development of governance in the mining sector in the DRC is a key priority as once peace and security is established in Eastern DRC, Nest predicts a mining boom similar to what occurred in Katanga. The Chinese thirst for minerals, especially from African countries, is an issue that Australia needs to remain very vigilant about in terms of both competition and opportunities. The coltan campaign highlights an interesting development in the realm of mobile phone and laptop usage; the beginning of a shift in consumer power from the western world to the developing world. As Nest explains:
… in 2008, ‘Africa has 35% more mobile phones subscribers (364 million) than the United States (270 million)… [while the] DRC has more mobile phone subscribers (9.3million) than either Switzerland (8.8 million) or Finland (6.8 million).
Australia must give its attention to both African and Asian consumer markets. For Australia, the coltan campaign illuminates the inter-connected futures of both continents, and that Australia must be committed to being fully aware of political, economic and security situations on the African continent when looking for economic opportunities.
Sabrina Joy Smith is a PhD candidate with the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes region of Africa at the Institute for Development Studies and Management, Belgium. She is currently based in New South Wales. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.