Around the world, Coltan prices are rising as new technologies increase the demand for the dark, metallic ore known as coltan, or columbite-tantanite. Until recently, the vast majority of the mines producing Coltan were located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, coltan mining in the Congo has usually been done by small, illegal operations that are often controlled by war lords who exploit the local labor force in order to fund their guerrilla warfare. Another crucial problem with these illegal coltan mining is the staggering environmental impact they have on the area.
Coltan mining involves digging basins in area streams and lakes and stirring up the surrounding soil so that the coltan, which is heavier than most other minerals in the water and soil, will sink to the bottom. It is then gathered by hand. Stirring up the soil along waterways dumps excess soil and debris into the water supplies, where it smothers a variety of organisms, including fish. This in turn reduces the food supply for the indigenous population and a variety of animals that are already on the endangered species lists.
Soil erosion also reduces the availability of cultivated fruits and vegetables, which in turn leads to suffering among the local populations. In severe cases, locals sometimes resort to eating endangered animals that are slaughtered and sold to villagers and the local military groups as "bush meat."
One of the most profound losses that could be suffered by the Democratic Republic of Congo and the world is the loss of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, a majestic primate that's currently teetering on the edge of extinction due to current coltan price wars. Because the coltan mining in the Congo is done by forced labor and child labor, the military juntas in the area are continuing to make incredible profits while decimating the gorillas' natural habitat.
In the Kahuzi National Park, long a refuge for the Eastern Lowland Gorillas, now has fewer than 130 healthy primates because large regions of the park have been deforested and cleared for illegal mining operations. The resulting damage to the gorillas' habitat has reduced the wild population of gorillas by 90% over the past decade. The poaching of these gorillas for bush meat has contributed to the decline. Today, fewer than 2500 Eastern Lowland Gorillas remain in the wild, with less than 50 in captivity.
In order to stabilize the coltan price on the world market and stop environmental rape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's necessary for companies to agree not to accept any coltan that is sold by the DRC or surrounding countries, including Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Because the demand for coltan will likely continue to rise as new electronic technologies emerge on the horizon, it's more imperative than ever that industrialized nations band together to purchase columbite-tantalite from sources that use acceptable mining techniques regardless of coltan price fluctuations.