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Coltan (short for columbite–tantalite and known industrially as tantalite) is a dull black metallic ore from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral in coltan is columbite (after niobium's original American name, columbium), and the tantalum-dominant mineral is tantalite.


Tantalum from coltan is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors, used in electronic products. Coltan mining has been cited as helping to finance serious conflict, for example the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Production and supply

Approximately 71% of global tantalum supply in 2008 was newly mined, 20% was from recycling, and the remainder was from tin slag and inventory.

Tantalum minerals are mined in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Tantalum is also produced in Thailand and Malaysia as a by-product of tin mining and smelting.

Potential future mines, in descending order of magnitude, are being explored in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uganda, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan, and Brazil. A significant reserve of coltan was discovered in 2009 in western Venezuela. In 2009 the Colombian government announced coltan reserves had been found in Colombia's eastern provinces.

Use and demand

Coltan is used primarily for the production of tantalum capacitors, used in many electronic devices. Many sources mention coltan's importance in the production of mobile phones, but tantalum capacitors are used in almost every kind of electronic device.

It is also used in high-temperature alloys for air- and land-based turbines. The upsurge in electronic products over the past decade resulted in a peak in late 2000, lasting a few months. In 2005, the price was still down at early 2000 levels.

The United States Geological Survey estimated in 2009 that tantalum production capacity could meet global demand, which is growing at four percent annually, at least until the year 2013.

Resource curse

Countries rich in resources - such as Congo - have been affected by the phenomenon called "resource curse". This is a phenomenon where countries that are rich in resources have worse economic development than countries that have fewer resources. This phenomenon does not allow for the Congolese to have a balanced and sustained development. It also indicates a clear relationship between the wealth of resources "…and the likelihood of weak democratic development, corruption, and civil war". Such high levels of corruption lead to great political instability and issues because whoever controls the assets (mainly the political leaders, and the government in Congo) can use them to their own benefit. These resources generate wealth for these people which they use to stay in power "…either through legal means, or coercive ones (e.g. funding militias)". The rise in the importance of coltan as a mineral crucial to technological products "occurred as warlords and armies in the eastern Congo converted artisanal mining operations…into slave labour regimes to earn hard currency to finance their militias". When much of eastern Congo came under the control of Rwandan forces from the 1990s, Rwanda became a major exporter of coltan, benefiting from the weakness of the Congolese government.

Digital age

Coltan is made into a component for many digital products such as cell phones. The digital age has caused issues regarding power relations and violence between individuals from Congo and the rest of the world. An example of uneven power relations was in late 2000, when there was a great demand for the PlayStation 2. This demand caused the price of coltan to increase very quickly and after demand for the gaming system fell, so did the price of coltan. The price hike intensified violence in Eastern Congo, as the violence was being directed at everyday "social production". Because there is a growing need for new technologies, the demand for coltan is growing substantially.


For Congolese, mining is the easiest source of income, because the work is consistent, albeit for only $1 per day. It is laborious, as miners walk for days in the forest to the ore, scratch it with hand tools and pan it. About 90% of young men in Congo do this. Research revealed that many Congolese leave farming because they need money quickly and cannot wait for crops to grow. Farming also presents obstacles. For example, a lack of roads makes it extremely difficult to transport produce to markets, and the harvest can be taken by militias or the Congolese army. Once their food is taken away or they can no longer grow food, people resort to mining to sustain themselves. Organized mines are usually run by corrupt groups like militias. Congolese have few tools to mine coltan, and no safety procedures or experience in mining. There is no government aid or intervention in many unethical and abusive circumstances. Miners consider coltan mining a way to provide for themselves in the face of widespread war and conflict and a government that has no concern for their welfare.

Ethics of mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Conflicts, including the Rwandan occupation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made it difficult for the DRC to exploit its coltan reserves. Mining of coltan is mainly artisanal and small-scale. A 2003 UN Security Council report stated that much of the ore is mined illegally and smuggled across Congo's eastern border by militias from neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.

All three countries named by the United Nations as coltan smugglers have denied being involved. Austrian journalist Klaus Werner has documented links between multi-national companies like Bayer and the illegal coltan traffic. A United Nations committee investigating the plunder of gems and minerals in Congo listed in its final report approximately 125 companies and individuals involved in business activities breaching international norms. Companies accused of irresponsible corporate behavior include Cabot Corporation, Eagle Wings Resources International Forrest Group and OM Group.

Coltan smuggling likely provided income for the military occupation of Congo, and the prolonged civil conflict afterwards. To many, this raises ethical questions akin to those of blood diamonds. Because it is difficult to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several processors such as Cabot Corp (USA) have decided to forgo central African coltan altogether, relying on other sources.

Much coltan from the DRC is exported to China for processing into electronic-grade tantalum powder and wires. Coltan imports from DRC to Europe are usually directed to Central/Eastern Europe and Russia. These cargoes mostly travel through the route Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Piraeus (Greece), then the Balkans. Nova Dies, an offshore consortium based in British Virgin Islands, mostly controls the trans-Balkan transportation network. This network carries mostly unprocessed coltan mined in uncontrolled artisanal mines, and so it hinders the development of processing infrastructure in DRC. Therefore, this route is a long-term threat for DRC economy.

Estimates of Congo's fraction of the world's coltan reserves range from 64% and up, but the higher estimates are difficult to trace to reliable data. Professional bodies like the British Geological Survey estimate 9% total for Central Africa. Tantalum, the primary mineral extracted from coltan, is also mined from other sources, and Congolese coltan has represented around 10% of world production in recent years.

Environmental concerns

Because of uncontrolled mining in the DRC, the land is being eroded and is polluting lakes and rivers, affecting the ecology of the region.

The eastern mountain gorilla's population has diminished as well. Miners are far from food sources and have been hunting gorillas. The gorilla population has been seriously reduced and is now critically endangered. In Central and West Africa an estimated 3–5 million tons of bushmeat is obtained by killing wild animals (including gorillas) each year.

Price increases and changing demands

There has been a significant drop in the production and sale of coltan and niobium from African mines since the dramatic price spike in 2000, which was based on dot com speculation and multiple ordering. This is confirmed in part by figures from the United States Geological Survey.

The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre in Belgium, the country that colonized Congo, has encouraged international buyers to avoid Congolese coltan on ethical grounds:

The central African countries of Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and their neighbours used to be the source of significant tonnages. But civil war, plundering of national parks and exporting of minerals, diamonds and other natural resources to provide funding of militias has caused the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center to call on its members to take care in obtaining their raw materials from lawful sources. Harm, or the threat of harm, to local people, wildlife or the environment is unacceptable.

For economic rather than ethical reasons, a shift is also being seen from traditional sources such as Australia, towards new suppliers such as Egypt. This may have been due to the bankruptcy of the world's biggest supplier, Australia's Sons of Gwalia. The operations previously owned by Gwalia in Wodgina and Greenbushes continue to operate in some capacity.

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  • References

    Coltan Wikipedia

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