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Coltan Price Reflects DRC's History Of Conflict


On today's metals and ores market, the Coltan price is subject to a lot of speculation and periodic swings in value based on a number of problems that have dogged the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for generations. This destabilized area of Africa has long suffered from the abuses and colonialism of outside countries, military despots and warring factions of various groups, including many guerilla groups eager to exploit the valuable columbite-tantalite ore that is found in the DRC in abundance.

A Century Of Exploitation

The first modern instance of exploitation of the DRC was in 1885, when King Leopold II of Belgium laid claim to the area, which he christened the Congo Free State. The misleading name was intended to lull the international community into believing that the Kings' intentions were honorable. Instead, he used his private army to brutally crush any rebellion and force millions of people into what was essentially slave labor on rubber plantations and in processing huge quantities of poached elephants for the ivory tusks. The labor intensive work of collecting sap from rubber plants and the frequent beatings and mutilations of the local labor force resulted in the deaths of more than seven million natives. In 1908, Leopold was finally pressured to sell the region to the Belgium government due to international outrage over his many colonial abuses.

Belgian Congo Until 1960

While the new rulers weren't as brutal or as King Leopold, their ruling of the new Belgian Congo was a sort of benign neglect. The Belgian ruling class ignored the local culture, establishing schools that focused on Western beliefs and culture and establishing countless Christian schools and churches. The rich natural resources of the area continued to be exploited by the ruling Belgian governors, although forced labor was abolished. Congolese natives continued to have to meet work quotas, however, and many were moved from their ancestral homes to work in copper mines while their lands were given over to Belgian colonists.

Independence And More Mining

In 1960, the Belgian Congo became an independent country, but without proper infrastructure and a collapsing economy, it suffered until stabilization came in the form of diamond mines and the discovery of new copper veins that were mined from the 1960s until the 1990s with considerable success. In the 1990's, coltan mining became one of the most profitable forms of mining in the Congo. During this time, destabilization of the economy and an influx of Rwandan refugees contributed to a wildly fluctuating coltan price that lasted through the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003.

Modern Coltan Price Wars

In the past decade, the price of columbite-tantalite ore has gone through various cycles, sometimes swinging wildly over just a few months' time more than once. From 1998 to 2003, warring factions, including guerillas from neighboring countries, contributed to constant fighting that was referred to as Africa's World War, based solely on various groups struggling to control and exploit mining operations. In 2000, a steep rise in the need for capacitors for the new generation of cell phones and the immensely popular Play Station 2 gaming systems led to a sharp increase in the coltan price, which hit over $275 a pound. In 2004, the collapse of the world's largest columbite-tantalite mining operation outside of the DRC, Australia's Sons of Gwalia Mining, triggered greater demand for columbite-tantalite ore, causing the coltan price in the DRC to once again spike. When natives can earn $50 a week mining for a guerilla organization rather than doing another job in the DRC for an income of $10 a month, it's difficult to control the safety of mining operations, many of which are small, illegal operations.

Today, the coltan price on the open market has somewhat stabilized, although abuses continue to take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo as warring factions from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and other warring countries continue to sell coltan mined in the DRC and illegally sold through other countries. Sadly, the last hundred years of the DRC's history is a long litany of deceit, colonial abuse, violence and exploitation due in large part to man's desire to profit from the many mineral resources in the area, including copper, diamonds, uranium and columbite-tantalite. As newer and more complex electronic devised hit the world market, it seems obvious that the coltan price in the DRC and around the globe will continue to contribute to the suffering of the people of the DRC, who have already been suffering for decades.