Columbite-tantalite suppliers around the world find themselves in the middle of a modern-day gold rush, for which those in the mines are paying a hefty price. Unregulated and dangerous mining continues to be a serious problem in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the mineral is plentiful, and the burden falls on responsible coltan companies to help ease the pain that the hunt for this valuable commodity has wrought. As demand for metallic tantalum, the highly sought-after material that is the result of refining columbite-tantalite – or coltan – continues to grow, there are steps that coltan companies can take to minimize or eliminate their negative impact on the people and the land in the DRC.
For some tantalum providers, the most efficient way to ensure that the tantalum they distribute has been mined ethically and compassionately is to utilize alternative sources to those in Africa. Currently, South American countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia are proving to be viable locations for effective columbite-tantalite mining. While some areas may not be as densely rich in the mineral as those in the Congo, the deposits are frequently larger in size and often yield a superior product. What's more, the mining regulations and standard practices for South American suppliers are more closely regulated, ensuring that the materials they produce can be certified as ethically collected.
While they may not be on the ground and in the mines of the DRC, coltan companies hold much of the power in determining how mines are excavated and the way miners are treated. When tantalum providers insist that all materials received are the result of ethical mining practices, they force suppliers to adjust their standards to eliminate unethical treatment or run the risk losing business. The current situation in the Congo is a direct result of demand outpacing supply, but the true price of this imbalance is paid by the miners. It is the responsibility of ethical providers to ensure that the products they distribute are not part of the problem. Fortunately, coltan companies that insist on ethical collection practices are increasingly common and suppliers willing to certify that their minerals have been mined in accordance with humane practices are becoming easier to find. International media attention has led some end consumers of tantalum to openly insist on responsible mining practices, causing a trickle-down effect that is showing signs of helping to improve conditions.
The increased visibility of the unsafe conditions in the DRC has led to an outpouring of support for suppliers who pledge to provide materials that are conflict-free. Most ethical coltan companies are eager to proclaim their products free of conflict minerals and are signing on to support organizations working to end unethical mining practices. Open disclosure of the source of their columbite-tantalite allows coltan companies to demonstrate that all of their materials emanate from alternative sources like Latin America and Australia. Until the atrocities being committed in the mines of the DRC have been put to a stop, these types of alternate source certifications are the only way suppliers can be sure that their columbite-tantalite has been collected in a responsible manner.