Monday, May 25, 2015

Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

  Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo


Coltan is the name for columbo-tantalite mined in Africa. It is a crucial raw material for the production of modern electonics.  When refined, the ore becomes tantalum, which is particularly well-suited for use in electric capacitors, because of its ability to hold high electic charges. (Burge & Hayes, 2002)  Coltan is used in cellular phones, computers, jet engines, missiles, ships, and weapons systems. (Montague, 2002)   Without coltan the digital age economy would grind tocoltan_map_-_french.jpg a halt.
Outisde of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, coltan mining takes place in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Burundi, and Rwanda. Other nations, such as Russia, are rich in the resource, but have not exploited their deposits. Australia produces 60% of the world’s tantalum, but the world’s largest reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  (Burge & Hayes, 2002)  In fact, Africa accounts for four-fifths of the world’s tantalum. (Montague, 2002)
Sixty-four percent of the world’s reserves of coltan are in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a nation racked by poverty and war. (Montague, 2002)  Rapidly increasing consumption of electronics in developed nations in 2000 depleted tantalum stockpiles. (Burge & Hayes, 2002)  Coltan prices soared to $500 per pound, as free-market forces sought to correct the balance of supply and demand. (US Geological Survey, 2001)  This free market correction came at acute environmental and human costs. 
The extraction of coltan is a process that heavily influences the surrounding environment. Coltan is found in high concentration within the boundaries of Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of a rich tropical forest ecosystem.  In 2001 more than 10,000 men, women, and chilkahuzi_biega.jpgdren moved to mining camps in Kahuzi Biega National Park, motivated by the rare opportunity to earn a living wage. (Redmond, 2001) Miners depended on the forest for sustenance, and relied on bushmeat for animal protein.  The implications for local biodiversity, especially large mammals, were devastating.  Estimates of elephant and lowland gorilla mortalities are 3,700 and 8,000 respectively. (Redmond, 2001)  The strain put on wildlife by over-hunting was compounded by habitat loss due to deforestation. Forests were cleared to set up mines and camps.  Just as severe as the initial deforestation was the sustained exploitation of wood for fuel.
deforestation.jpg   elephant.jpg
 Human Costs
Mining for coltan is such a profitable industry, compared to other opportunities in the DRC, that workers are willing to compromise their human rights.  Child labor is an increasing problem in the region.  Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are leaving their studies, often with their families, while embracing the ‘get-rich-quick’ attitude of much of the population.  One school reported a drop in attendance of about 30 percent (Redmond, 2001).
 Rwanda and Uganda invaded the Dominican Republic of Congo in August 1998.  The primary motivation for this invasion was to gain control of the abundance of natural resources the country was known to obtain.  Uganda and Rwanda played a large role in the creation of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, which had now spun off into several major rebel groups: RCD-Goma, RCD-Kisingani, and the Congolese Liberation Front (Montague, 2002).  
            These rebel groups are motivated more by economic reasons than the pursuit of political standards.  Acknowledging that the official defense budgets of both Rwanda and Uganda do not cover the cost of the conflict, Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, describes the war as “self financing,” (Montague, 2002).  This financing he is referring to includes the mining of coltan.  This has been evident in the global shortage of coltan that coincided with the second invasion of the Democratic of Congo.  
 The amount of fighting that actually takes place between Rwanda and Uganda themselves had increased in the “coltan belt.”  This term refers to a stretch of land rich in the mineral, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Resulting from this fighting has been tension of ethnic relations, entire community devastation, and in one area a significant loss in Biodiversity (Montague, 2002).
In the DRC, workers sacrificed environmental integrity to enter the global system in hopes of achieving affluence.  Compared with the enormous profit made by electronic companies, miners were poorly compensated for their labor. (Hardin, 2001) Rising consumer demand for luxury electronics in developed nations exacerbated environmental injustices for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

        ARCGIS Illustration
This map shows the relationship between the areas in Africa with a threatened biome status and the areas with a significant rate of deforestation.  There is a high rate of deforestation shown in Rwanda and Burundi, where coltan is mined.  There also appears to be a high rate around the western part of the continent.  The most critically threatened biomes are shown to be in central Africa, a section which also borders the coltan reserves. 

Mining in the DRC – Coltan is mined in the slashed oval in the eastern DRC.
Map zoomed in on the coltan mining region showing Kahuzi Biega National Park.
Rwanda deforestation

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