Coltan, or columbite-tantalite, is the miracle material used in numerous electronics applications including cell phones, computers, audio equipment, jet engines, medical devices, and much more. This tar-like material has seen increasing demand since 1990 as it is heat resistant and able to hold high electrical charges. It is a key ingredient in capacitors that store energy to power these devices. If the material were to suddenly vanish, electronics manufacturers would be scrambling for an alternative. As it is, extraction methods used to mine this material in the Congo have led to international outrage, which has caused enterprises who use it to find other sources and to verify its country of origin.
Tantalum mining companies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) operate under such terrible conditions that they have sparked documentaries such as Blood in the Mobile. Like the African diamond industry before it, tantalum mining is awash in the blood of Congolese miners. For some Congolese people, mining is an opportunity to earn a living that brings needed money to the family much more quickly than farming. Miners earn a higher wage than most other workers, but pay dearly with backbreaking work under unsafe conditions. They bring their families to the mining camp, and often children are put to work in the mines. The children drop out of school, which also impedes their future if they survive their working days.
Extracting tantalite from coltan in tantalum mining is similar to digging for gold in 1849 in that several days' work is required to produce a small amount of product. Most of the DRC tantalum mining companies are illegal operations run by cruel militias. Opened on the fly, mines are subject to cave-ins that kill or maim workers. Much of the output is smuggled over the border to Uganda, Burundi, or Rwanda, where the profits fund cruel regimes.
The process has many other ramifications for the environment. Mine owners devastate forests to build camps, which leaves lands unstable and destroys the habitat of endangered gorillas and elephants. Hungry miners hunt these animals for food, greatly reducing their numbers. They also strip nearby forests for wood.
Conditions in DRC mines led the United Nations to call for a ban on using columbite-tantalite that comes from Congolese mines. Their three-pronged recommendation called for buyers to verify the source of the product they purchase to make sure it did not come from a World Heritage site in the Congo, recommended efforts to remove miners from these dangerous enterprises, and supported efforts to help miners find other employment.
Since the UN report was issued in 2001, the problems in the DRC have not been solved completely, but there has been a shift in where electronics manufactures buy their columbite-tantalite. Some multi-national corporations who were major beneficiaries of Congolese coltan try to make sure that the product comes from other locations. This, however, is harder than it seems.
Reputable electronics producers can buy coltan through sources that verify that they buy products from South America and other locations that use responsible, humane production methods. Some suspicious product is hard to track, especially after processing, if buyers choose to deal with questionable suppliers. New technology pioneered in Germany has opened up a way to read the "footprint" of coltan in order to discover its origin. The new technology is costly, time-consuming, and not in widespread use, but offers a promising method for responsible companies to make sure they are not using "conflict coltan" from the Congo.
The bloody history of coltan should incite consumer outrage, but shoppers are fickle. Coltan is not as dramatic as diamonds. Most consumers in developed countries feel little guilt about product origin until a clothing factory collapses in Bangladesh or a human rights group publicises some other abuse. Unfortunately, outrage is short-lived and most shoppers go back to their old ways, oblivious to the real cost of their purchase to workers or to the environment. Until consumers start asking about the source of coltan in their phones and computers and stop buying items with components from the Congo, problematic materials will still be used.