Colton miners have been suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo for years as the ever-increasing demand for coltan and its derivative, tantalum, continues to spiral upward. Smart phones, tablets, video games and a host of other hand-held electronics rely on the high conductivity of tantalum for their microprocessors. Unfortunately, most of the mines in the Congo are small scale, independent operations that are both illegal and often lethal to the indigenous population.
Although many people picture a large-scale, industrialized process when they think of a mining operation, nothing could be farther from the truth in the Congo, where hundreds of isolated streams and lakes are mined by locals who rely on age-old methods to collect the valuable metal.
These Coltan miners work by hand, usually in teams of three or four, to dig down into streams and lake beds, creating basins. They sometimes have small shovels or pickaxes, but many simply use the strength of their arms and callused hands to dig deep basins. After these basins are created, the coltan miners slosh water into the basins, stirring up the water and its particulate. Coltan, being heavier than most of the mud and other materials in the water, quickly settles to the bottom of the basins and the miners then scoop up the metal by hand. It's a tedious, back-breaking process often done by the elderly and children.
The coltan miners in the Congo make very little money, have no organized union, often don't have access to the appropriate tools and are exposed day after day to harsh conditions and unsanitary water and potentially toxic materials while they are mining the coltan. They can't speak up for themselves because they fear reprisals from various war lords, who make a handsome profit of the backs of the local miners. In many cases, these war lords seize small mining operations and take over, giving the miners only a miniscule portion of the profits. Fearing that their families might be punished or even killed, the coltan miners stay silent, perpetuating illegal coltan mining operations that damage the local ecosystem and take a heavy toll on the coltan miners and their families.
While 70-80% of coltan continues to be supplied by the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are legal mining operations on other continents that are trying to increase their output while protecting the local environment and providing a living wage. Coltan miners working in healthy, semi-industrialized coltan mining operations are increasingly producing columbite-tantalite successfully. Canada, Australia and some South American countries are currently exporting coltan, although there are limitations. Australia contends with the high cost of shipping the columbite-tantalite product to European countries and the United States, and Canadian operations simply can't produce enough to feed the growing need for columbite-tantalite in the global market.
A recent study at the University of St. Andrews determined that Coltan can be found inside extinct volcanoes in Greenland. Geologist Dr. Adrian Finch hopes to investigate these volcanoes in order to determine whether it's commercially possible to extract columbite-tantalite from these volcanoes, but any mining operations are years away at best.
Currently, Costa Rica's Magma Coltan is one of the most reliable and successful exporters of coltan outside of the DRC and surrounding conflict zones such as Rwanda. Coltan miners working for Magma Coltan are trained to properly extract the ore using semi-industrial equipment and tools appropriate to the task. The company provides a comfortable, living wage for their employees and respects the local environment, using appropriate environmental safeguards and adhering to the United Nation's guidelines, local and international law. To learn more about Magma Coltan's commitment to coltan miners and receive a free sample of industrial grade columbite-tantalite for your company, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website.