Due to its incredible ability to hold an electric charge, coltan has remained the mineral of choice among electronics manufacturers. Widely used in cell phones, laptops, gaming systems and other small electronics, it is also used in much larger products such as jet engines, rockets and turbines, proving useful to the defense and military industries. Coltan can even be used in prosthetic devices, hearing aids and pacemakers. With so many uses it's easy to see why the material remains in such high demand, but the multitude of uses alone isn't the only reason it continues to be mined, despite the problems mining sometimes generates.
The fact that columbite-tantalite deposits are so widely distributed around the world helps maintain demand. If it were less available, costs would rise to the point that it would be financially impractical to continue to mine the mineral and still provide low-cost electronics on the scale the world demands. This widespread availability is good news for countries, manufacturers and consumers who are concerned about conflict coltan, the biggest source of which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Although the mineral is plentiful, that doesn't mean it's always easy to mine or that it is mined responsibly.
Currently, mining takes place in Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, the DRC, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana, Guyana, Mozambique and Rwanda, although reserves have been found on every continent except Antarctica.
Although Africa gets a bad rap for generating conflict coltan, other than the DRC and Rwanda the other African operations are considered conflict-free. Similarly, very small operations in Colombia and Venezuela do exist, but they are illegal and often result in similar human-rights violations and environmental damage as the mines in Africa. The material usually ends up on the black market. Brazil, on the other hand, allows legal mining of the mineral, has standards in place and has become a leading supplier in the world market. These discrepancies between countries highlight the trouble manufacturers have in identifying conflict-free product.
The main issue with coltan mining is the private, unregulated market for the material. This lack of regulation means a lack of safety standards and best practices that can protect both the miners and the environment. Without a regulated market, safety standards and mining operations are left to the discretion of the mine owners and the countries where the mines are located.
Some countries, primarily industrialized countries, have created standards for coltan mining that protect the health and welfare of the miners themselves as well as the natural environment, but there are other countries that have not taken this path, preferring instead to let the mine owners do what they want, which all too often involves human rights, ethical and environmental violations. In some cases, these are very small operations with individuals opting to mine the material illegally simply because the payment they receive for the mineral is so much higher than any other wage they could bring home.
The United Nations has stepped in and cited countries for ethics violations related to coltan mining, but those citations haven't done much to stop the flow of conflict material from desperate individuals who have become entangled with warlords or militias who oversee the mining operations. Countries like the U.S., Canada and much of Europe require manufacturers to verify that their supply is conflict free, but other countries, like China, do not have these same requirements which allows questionable materials to remain in the supply chain and even become mixed with conflict-free materials. Compounding the problem is the fact that coltan doesn’t have an easily identifiable "fingerprint". This makes it extremely difficult to determine where a sample has originated.
In the end, the best way for manufacturers to ensure the product they are purchasing is conflict-free is to work with suppliers who do not get their raw materials from Africa.