What is Coltan?

Coltan (short for columbite–tantalite and known industrially as tantalite) is a dull black metallic ore from which the elements niobium (formerly “columbium”) and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral in coltan is columbite, and the tantalum-dominant mineral is tantalite. Tantalum from coltan is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors, used in electronic products.¹ It is found chiefly in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Why is Coltan Such a Serious Issue in the Congo?

Coltan is mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, notably in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the Congolese National Army, and various armed rebel groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a proxy Rwandan militia group. The looting of the Congo’s natural resources is not limited to domestic actors; during the Congo Wars, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi particularly profited from the Congo’s resources. These governments have continued to smuggle resources out of the Congo to this day. The profits from the sale of these minerals finance continued fighting in the Second Congo War, and control of lucrative mines becomes a focus of the fighting as well. Coltan is extracted from the Eastern Congo, and passed through a variety of intermediaries before being purchased by multinational electronics companies.²

Armed militias are estimated to be present at more than 50% of the coltan mines, located usually in remote areas of the Eastern Congo. These groups, affiliated with the Congolese Army, force men, women, and children to work up to 48 hours at a time in dangerous mines where landslides and improper ventilation will kill them. Rape as a weapon against native women is an every day occurrence at the mines and by the Congolese Army. Legal mines, appropriately staffed and safe, have absolutely no chance at operation under the current circumstances.

Next Page: Aren’t there international laws against this type of violence?

UPDATE (June 23, 2012):  The Dodd-Frank Act, passed a year ago, requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to order an estimated 5,994 public companies to report whether they obtain any of four metals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Humanitarian groups accuse warlords in Congo of enslaving, raping and murdering residents in the aftermath of the country’s civil war. That misery, they say, is funded by “conflict minerals” torn from Congo’s rich mines. Bloomberg’s Lizzie O’Leary reports. (Source: Bloomberg)

¹Coltan. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 14, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan
²Conflict Minerals. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 14, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_minerals