The appalling working conditions and illegal columbite-tantalite mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been highlighted in the news over the past few years primarily because the need for this rich, metallic ore has grown exponentially. With an ever-increasing need for reliable, durable capacitors, communications companies, electronics manufacturers, cell phone companies and medical device manufacturers are caught between their need for the mineral and their concerns for where the mineral is coming from. In past years, many tantalum mining companies in the DRC weren't actually legal operations; in fact, some were the result of war lords and rebel factions forcing their own people into labor using their own hands to dig the ore out of the earth. Other groups in the Congo have exploited child labor in order to sell coltan, or columbite-tantalite, to international buyers, but in recent years that has begun to change.
In its simplest terms, the problem is that the Democratic Republic of Congo can supply cheap columbite-tantalite through rebel factions by using children and adults as indentured slaves. In these illegal operations, there are no safety measures and the people work long hours for little or no pay. In fact, the International Rescue Committee has estimated that over five million people have died as the result of tantalum mining in the last ten years.
Fortunately, the tide is turning and in recent years more tantalum mining companies than ever have pledged to produce high grade coltan for their customers without having to resort to sources within the DRC. On other fronts, there are organizations that have dedicated themselves to discovering alternatives that will protect human lives and still provide industrial customers with the high quality capacitors they need. Four initiatives that show promise include:
Companies purchasing their tantalum from international sources are increasingly performing due diligence to ensure that the minerals they are using in their manufacturing facilities aren't coming from conflict zones. By asking the right questions and properly documenting the supply chain, they can determine with more certainty whether the tantalum mining companies they are contracted with are legally viable and following appropriate human rights guidelines.
The United Nations and numerous individual governments have begun to put pressure on mining organizations in order to dissuade them from continuing to work with rebel controlled mines or those that exploit workers or children. In the United States, this includes legislation requiring that all publicly traded companies report all DRC mineral use.
Tantalum Mining Companies Outside The DRC
While it's estimated that as much as 75% of the world's columbite-tantalite available supply is located within the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are other countries that have tantalum reserves. Among these are Canada, Australia and Costa Rica. In these countries, the cost of mining in an ethically acceptable fashion is higher but far more acceptable to governments and corporations who want to steer clear of unfortunate entanglements with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the future, it's hoped that tantalum mining companies will be able to mine and supply tantalum or coltan to electronics and capacitor manufacturers around the globe without abusing the civil rights of miners in any country. If corporations continue to demand accountability and oversight as well, the end result will be success.