Nothing shapes business like demand. This is one reason coltan companies have such sway over the mining practices of suppliers. As the customers of coltan companies demand conflict-free tantalite and tantalum, suppliers have chosen to source the mineral from countries that have responsible practices.
The biggest controversy surrounding coltan mining revolves around practices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The region has vast supplies of the ore but no mining standards in place. This leads to struggles for control of the mines between warring military coalitions, the exploitation of workers and disregard for the environmental effects of the work.
Companies that supply the mineral to tech manufacturers are then faced with the problem of purchasing from countries that mine responsibly or those that do not. If they choose tantalum from the Congo, they risk losing clients and they perpetuate the unreasonable practices of the DRC. If they choose to purchase the ore from countries that have more responsible standards in place, they can limit demand for supply from the Congo and encourage the adoption of acceptable harvesting standards.
Ironically, the internet and those very products that tantalum is mined for have made it easier than ever for news to travel far and wide very quickly. A hundred years ago it would have been much more difficult for end consumers to learn about or understand the conflict surrounding the harvesting of resources used in products they've purchased. The controversy over "blood diamonds" comes to mind in this case. Most consumers likely had no idea that their gemstones were the result of flagrant human rights violations or that the mining caused widespread environmental degradation. Today, it's much easier for us to learn about where our products come from and demand sustainable practices from suppliers.
There's also been a mind shift in the world over the last hundred years or so. No longer is it acceptable to turn a blind eye to human rights violations around the globe. Consumers, businesses and entire countries have banded together to denounce such mistreatment and to boycott purchasing from countries that abuse their workers. The demand for conflict-free minerals is a direct result of this type of consumer intervention.
It is through the power of demand that coltan companies can influence the mining of tantalum. The Congo isn't the only place to find the valuable ore. It's actually fairly widespread and can be found on every continent. Major producers outside of Africa include Canada, South America and Australia, where responsible mining practices are enforced. When suppliers demand conflict-free supplies they have a chance to shape how the mineral is mined and as a result how workers are treated and how mine operations are conducted.
Consumer demand is the reason mining standards have been adopted in many countries and also why the supply chain has become so much more transparent. However, it is the coltan companies that have the most direct impact on sourcing of the mineral and, consequently, the most influence on real-life practices.