With high demand for electronics, it is unlikely that the demand for coltan will be anything but steady. While some companies are committed to sustainable practices that adhere to local and international laws, the reality in some countries it remains one of high human and environmental cost. Perhaps the worst record for sustainable practice belongs to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has abundant columbite and tantalite resources. In a country devastated by poverty, political strife and violence, the possibility of earning even a little money through illegal mining has been the perfect storm for what is taking place in DRC today.
Unregulated mining practices have enabled unethical practices that dominate an industry fuelled by the desire to transcend poverty. The ugly reality is that child labor is rampant in destitute countries that have abundant, valuable resources.
The lure of money has created conflict with countries neighboring DRC, including Rwanda and Uganda; both countries invaded DRC in an ongoing battle for resources that continues to this day, with militia groups involved in mining operations in coltan-rich areas. To state that ethnic relations are strained as a result of the scramble to mine coltan is an understatement, and the already dangerous work of mining is increased by constant violence in DRC. With no one to ensure local and international human rights laws are adhered to, coltan mining is a high risk occupation, indeed.
The current situation in DRC has negatively impacted every aspect of the environment, from forest to streams, to the animals that inhabit the region. The tropical ecosystem of Kahuzi Biegu National Park has remained unprotected from miners. Communities of miners live deep in the forest, using up natural resources such as wood for heat and shelter, and hunting for "bushmeat". Entire populations of gorillas hunted for food have caused significant biodiversity loss; protected species, including elephants, have also been killed by miners for food.
Environmental damage extends from animals, plants, and trees to the land itself. Mining has caused significant land erosion and severe pollution of lakes and rivers. Coltan is toxic, and the lack of standards in its production has increased the damage to the local environment exponentially. The irony, of course, is that a lack of sustainability will inevitably lead to a depletion of coltan and the destruction of other natural resources -- creating a situation that will further push the people of DRC deeper into poverty once the resources are gone. Unfortunately, in a place where there are no opportunities and no hope, the people of DRC will do what they feel they must to have a chance in life.
While the situation in DRC is complex and cannot be solved by outside influences, businesses hold the power of choice. By choosing not to support an industry that is run on human exploitation and environmental destruction, companies have a voice. By boycotting the purchase of coltan from any country with unregulated mining practices, and supporting companies who are committed to sustainable practices, the global marketplace can make a statement. Pressure to adhere to laws that protect the environment and human life must be strong enough, and loud enough, to have an impact. The voice of governments who can rally and commit to working with the United Nations to help find a way to resolve the devastation in the Congo must also be committed and strong.