As the demand for coltan capacitors for electronics has steadily increased over the last several years, more residents than ever of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have turned to the often dangerous and sometimes fatal practice of illegal mining. Why do so many people end up doing this back-breaking, lethal form of extracting ore? The reasons are often more complex than most people realize. While some are forced into service by guerilla warriors and tribal leaders embroiled in local wars, others choose to extract columbite-tantalite ore because of the impressive tantalum price on the open market.
The DRC has several working coltan operations that are quite large in scale. These are usually underground operations where men, women and children may work as coltan miners for as much as 16 hours a day slowly chipping away at the surrounding rock walls in order to remove tantalum ores.
The more common form of extracting the ore, however, is currently the many illegal sites across the country. Here, men, women and children mine by hand. They dig basins in or alongside streams by scraping away the mud and letting the stream's water rush in. They then swirl the water around, creating a minor whirlpool that washes away lighter debris while the ore settles to the bottom. Some coltan miners also "pan" for columbite-tantalite by swirling the water in a large, shallow pan, much like panning for gold.
The physically demanding nature of coltan extraction creates alarming health problems for coltan miners, including exhaustion and various illnesses. Tiny fibers from the rock and the ore are released into the air and subsequently inhaled, where it causes debilitating lung disease. There is also the danger of mine cave-ins and injury by tools or improper mining procedures.
Men aren't the only individuals turning to coltan mining to support their families. There are also many women and children in the mines, due in large part to the need to have every family member working in order to survive the poor economic conditions of the area. As many as 30% of children 12 and up drop out of school to enter the mines, and many women work while infants are strapped to their backs, exposing them as well to poisonous fibers and extreme conditions.
The lure of extra money has been so strong for many villagers in the DRC that in some areas, entire villages have become coltan miners, leaving behind their work in the fields. In the last decade, a country that used to export foods to several other African countries is now facing a serious food shortage. The lure of making up to $200 a week is often irresistible for families who have never earned more than $10 a month in their lives. Unfortunately, this often leads to untended fields and loss of livestock.
Compounding the problem of fewer agricultural farmers, the mining methods used irreparably damage the environment. The DRC has some of the richest soil on the continent, but it is quickly being destroyed by erosion in areas where dozens or even hundreds of small, illegal mines have contaminated the topsoil and caused severe erosion. The demand for food by the miners has also led to poaching, including the killing of endangered species such as lowland gorillas.
The complex motives and problems associated with coltan miners make them a hot button topic around the globe. Fortunately, there are other countries, including Australia, Costa Rica and other South and Central American countries that have recently begun coltan mining in order to meet the world demand without exploiting their citizens.