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Coltan, Cell Phones and Crisis in the Congo
The horror! The horror!" These are the famous last words uttered by Mr. Kurtz, a character in Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Kurtz is an ivory dealer who set himself up as a jungle demigod hustling elephant tusks down the Congo River to a lucrative European market. That utterance, repeated by Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now, says it all about the night- mare of the white man's burden: a dark dream that continues today.With nearly every use of a new cell phone or compu- ter, American consumers depend on the natural element tantalum, which is extracted from coltan, a mineral often mined illegally in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.
A tenfold spike in the price of coltan in 2000 brought attention to its lawless extraction in the Congo with head- lines like, "Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones," and "Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust." As in the past with elephants, moun- tain gorillas and millions of innocent civilians today are being trampled in the quest for mineral wealth deep in the heart of Africa.
Earth Island Journal argues that the 2000 spike in coltan prices was caused by the launch of the Sony PlayStation 2 and a new generation of mobile phones. The irony of that observation was not lost on British Labour MP Oona King when she expounded, "Kids in Congo are being sent down into mines to die so that kids in Europe and America can kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."
The predominant use of tantalum is for capacitors, a component of electronics such as cell phones, computers, DVD players and video-game systems. Capacitors hold an electronic charge and are used for energy storage and the filtering of electronic fields. Superalloys made of tantalum and other metals are extremely hard and find their place in turbines for jets as well as parts for missiles and nuclear reactors. The versatile mineral is also used for surgical tools and medical implants because tantalum coatings do not react with body tissues and fluids.
Coltan itself is "columbite-tantalite," a black mineral found in Brazil, Australia and Canada, with the majority of the world's remaining reserves in Congo. It occurs in ancient rock formations known as granitic pegmatites, where eroded rock has been deposited by water. The pegmatites crystallize slowly and retain a great deal of water and are often enriched with rare elements and gemstones such as topaz and tourmaline. Riverbeds and alluvial deposits are the main source in Congo. Coltan found in these formations is largely composed of two rare elements: niobium and tantalum. Tantalum, discovered in 1802, was not purified until a century later - a difficult task because the element has a melting point of 5,458 degrees Centigrade and can be dissolved only by acids so powerful they liquefy glass. The frustration of attempting to purify tantalum is the source of its name: The pure metal was "tantalizing" to the eyes but always out of reach. Once purified, tantalum is a hard, gray metal that can easily be drawn into wire or deformed without breaking.
Australian mines provide 41 percent of global tantalum supplies, mostly from the firm Sons of Gwalia. Brazil follows Australia, with 21 percent of production. Worldwide, 4 million pounds of tantalum are consumed annually in the form of metal powder, wire, fabricated forms, compounds and alloys. The market is strained to the limit, and tantalum extracted from the large mines is sold in contracts with processors before it is even out of the ground. Sons of Gwalia recently opened a new mine, but predictions suggest that the global market will absorb all extra production by 2010.
When the 2000 price spike caused a "coltan rush" in eastern Congo, legions of coltan miners tore apart alluvial deposits, river beds, and soft rock with picks and shovels. Coltan is heavy, so swirling stones and soil in a pan works to separate out the coltan just as it does with gold. In the process, river banks and streams are transformed into mud, and erosion commonly leads to landslides. The landscape is further degraded as mining camps chop down trees for firewood and building materials, devastating swaths of the lowland portion of the Virunga World Heritage National Park.
In addition, hunters harvest "bush meat" to feed the workers in mining camps. In just a few years, lowland Grauer's gorilla populations in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Congo near the Rwandan border dropped from 8,000 to less than 1,000. Some mountain gorillas (with only 700 left in the world) have recently been killed and butchered for food. Ian Redmond, chief consultant for the U.N. Great Apes Survival Project, points out: "Every time we buy a high-tech gadget, we may be pushing the great apes closer to extinction...there isn't a global conspiracy to wipe out the great apes. They are disappearing because of global negligence." Similarly, conservationists can no longer find any forest elephants in Kahuzi-Biega, a population that numbered 3,600 just a decade ago, and the local hippopotamus herds have diminished from 22,000 in 1998 to only 900. Chimpanzees and antelope are nowhere to be seen.
A thousand years ago, indigenous Congo pygmies first welcomed Bantu-speaking tribesmen from the south searching for copper. Five hundred years ago, Arab traders from the east and Portuguese merchants from the west entered the Congo shopping for ivory and slaves. In the 1870s, Belgium's King Leopold II laid claim to the Congo as though it were his personal estate. With the assistance of Anglo-American adventurer Henry Stanley, of "Mr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, he negotiated trade rights for a range of goods, including diamonds, gold and rubber. It is believed that Joseph Conrad's Kurtz was modeled on Stanley.
The colony was maintained by Belgium until independence was declared in the late-1950s, when nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba came into power. In 1960, the Congolese army mutinied and declared Katanga, the large mineral-rich southeastern province, to be independent. Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for help to reunify the country, but 30-year-old Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko soon led a coup with the alleged backing of Western intelligence agencies. Mobutu renamed the Congo "Zaire" and for 30 years enriched himself in a manner similar to King Leopold.
There were more than enough riches to go around, but Lumumba supporter Laurent Kabila helped organize a secessionist Marxist state in eastern Congo. Educated in France and Tanzania, Kabila was for a short time in 1968 assisted by Che Guevara, who planned a Cuban-style revolution for the Congo, but Guevara politely dismissed Kabila as "not the man of the hour." Two years later, Kabila found the support of the People's Republic of China and launched himself into an era of collective agriculture and mineral smuggling. Kabila's proto-state came to an end in 1988, and he was widely believed to be dead.
The 1994 genocide of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi, as dramatized in the film Hotel Rwanda, spilled political instability across the border into Congo, and in 1997 Kabila was resurrected as a national leader and marched triumphantly into the capital city of Kinshasa, overthrowing an ailing Mobutu. Within two years, his Rwandan friends turned on him, and he was assassinated by one of his own staff. Since then, the country has been ruled by Kabila's son, Joseph. Trained at the National Defense University in Beijing, Joseph Kabila has attempted to remove foreign troops while establishing himself as a "democratically elected" leader of a country roughly the size of Mexico with over 60 million inhabitants. Since the mid-1990s, two massive wars have devastated Congo, leaving 4 million dead, more than any military conflict since World War II. And all during that time, the illegal extraction of natural resources in the country has only increased. While Kabila's army has reduced the number of troops from neighboring countries such as the Sudan, Uganda, Angola and Tanzania, Rwandan Hutu forces called the "Interahamwe" and Congolese militias, known collectively as the "Mai-Mai," occupy the most violently disputed areas of the eastern DRC, concentrating their activities primarily in locations where mining of gold, diamonds and coltan takes place.
"Militias from Rwanda and Uganda may justify invasions on the grounds that they are defending their people against rebels, but they earn billions from the tantalum they collect and smuggle across borders during these raids," writes John Perkins in The Secret History of the American Empire (Dutton Books, 2007).
In 1999, Congo and neighboring countries signed the United Nations-sponsored Lusaka Accord, ending the first Congo war, and formed MONUC, a French acronym for the United Nations Observer Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which brought U.N. troops into the country in an effort to stabilize the region. In 2001, the U.N. issued a report titled "Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo." Unfortunately, exploitation of resources and the war continued with horrific effects on the civilian population. There have been chronic food shortages and contaminated water supplies, with children being at the greatest risk of starving or succumbing to disease. Families are torn apart, and children are easily recruited or kidnapped into the service of the militias. Females of all ages pay the most terrible price of all, as armed men and boys kidnap and rape mothers, daughters and grandmothers without consequence. Although Joseph Kabila, the country's erstwhile leader, is attempting to limit the warfare, documented atrocities against human beings, animals and the environment continue.
The math makes it easy to follow the money. Coltan miners earn $50 per week when the average Congolese worker can expect $10 per month. In the DRC, a team of miners can extract a kilo of coltan per day. In 1998 the price of coltan was $40 per kilo, but then it spiked up to $400 in 2000 and has hovered around $100 ever since, with demand only increasing. According to IndymediaUK journalist Jason Perkinson, 80 percent of Congo's coltan arrives at the Sons of Gwalia in Australia for processing. Then the tantalum is sold primarily to Germany's Bayer subsidiary H.C. Starck and the American company Cabot, which in turn make capacitors for customers such as Alcatel, Compaq, Dell, IBM, Ericson, Nokia and Siemens. The yearly market in tantalum is worth over $6 billion, half of which is used in the annual manufacture of nearly 1 billion cell phones.
Western businesses profiting from resources extracted in politically unstable climates is nothing new. Then- Secretary General Kofi Annan said in addressing the U.N. in 2003: "The economic dimensions of armed conflict are often overlooked, but they should never be underestimated. The role of business, in particular, can be crucial, for good and for ill. Private companies operate in many conflict zones or conflict-prone countries...and private enterprises and individuals are involved in the exploitation of, and trade in, lucrative natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, narcotics, timber and coltan, a crucial ingredient in many high-tech electronics. Governments and rebel groups alike have financed and sustained military campaigns in this way. In many situations, the chaos of conflict has enabled resources to be exploited illegally or with little regard for equity or the environment."
In 2004, the Friends of the Earth and a U.K.-based group, Rights and Accountability in Development, filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department against Cabot and other Western corporations, claiming they had violated the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's "Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises." In a follow-up letter to the OECD, Adotei Akwei, senior Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International, wrote: "Given the gravity of all the allegations contained in the U.N. Panel report, it is unclear why governments have felt no need to launch their own fact-finding investigations.... We urge you to follow the Security Council's recommendations by launching immediate, thorough investigations into the conduct of the American companies concerned."
Born of warfare, coltan is also used to fight wars. Journalist Alex Shoumatoff identifies the Carlisle Group as a large consumer of tantalum. The global equity investment firm was fronted by former president George H.W. Bush until 2003, and Shoumatoff notes: "Carlisle's biggest customer is the American military. A whole lot of coltan was used in the attack on Iraq."
The Bush administration has made no issue of the extraction of coltan from Congo, but then again George Jr. recruited Cabot CEO Samuel Bodman to serve as his secretary of energy. By far the richest member of Bush's cabinet, Bodman is no friend to the environment. In the 1990s he used his connections with then-Gov. Bush to exploit a loophole in state law that allowed Cabot to release 60,000 tons of toxic emissions into the atmosphere each year, making it the most prolific polluter in Texas.
Journalist Jason Leopold writes in Z Magazine: "The State Department is the agency in charge of deciding whether U.S. companies breach the OECD guidelines. Despite the allegations included in the U.N. report and the complaint filed by the two actiist groups, the State Department has refused to launch an independent investigation into whether Cabot, under Bodman's leadership, and the other U.S. companies might have contributed to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cabot is the world's largest coltan refiner....Under Bodman's leadership an unknown amount of the coltan Cabot was purchasing could have originated from the DRC."
It is not surprising then that the 2003 meeting between Bush Jr. and Kabila Jr. was blandly reported by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, "The president had a good and positive discussion with President Kabila. The president reaffirmed our commitment to continue providing humanitarian assistance to relieve human suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
Preoccupied with Iraq, the United States has not been willing to get involved militarily, and to date there is not a single American serving among the 17,000 MONUC forces. With so much finger pointing, bringing attention to the human suffering and environmental degradation in the DRC has been slow. A range of nongovernmental organizations has brought much- needed aid to Congo, but they are dependent on the security forces of the United Nations. Mercy Corps, the international relief agency, has been meeting recently with Congolese organizations and U.N. agencies there. Needs assessment research is continuing this summer as Mercy Corps investigates gaps in response, security concerns and funding support.
"Rather than implement a short-term project and then pull out of the country, we need to evaluate if we can support a long-term project before deciding on intervening," says Laura Miller, a Mercy Corps program officer for West and Southern Africa.
Meanwhile, all the major companies that profit from tantalum have attempted to distance themselves from what continues to happen in the Congo. In November 2006, Nokia published a statement declaring its stance on tantalum and coltan: "Nokia is not buying tantalum or other raw materials but processed compo-nents and assemblies from suppliers around the world.... Nokia does not use any endangered species for any business purposes and furthermore requests that its suppliers avoid raw materials from an origin where there are clear human- or animal-rights abuse.... Nokia has sent a notification of the Congo situation to its suppliers using tantalum asking them to follow the situation, and to avoid purchasing tantalum from Congo. Nokia is also reducing the use of tantalum in its products."
"I'm not in favor of killing gorillas," says Dick Rosen, CEO of AVX, a tantalum capacitor maker in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and one of Nokia's main suppliers. "[But] we don't have any idea where [the metal] comes from. There's no way to tell. I don't know how to control it."
For its part, Intel has begun to review the source of the tantalum it uses. "We'd like to be able to know the answer," says spokesman Chuck Mulloy.
Compaq has issued a statement saying it "condemns the reported activities of illegal miners in the Kahuzi- Biega National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo." But, as Compaq spokesman Arch Currid concedes, "most of the components that we get [come] from third-party providers, so where they get their raw goods is hard to determine."
One bright note is that a coalition of 57 North American zoos has initiated a cell-phone recycling program coordinated through the company Eco-Cell. "It actually enables you to do a very simple action to help participate in the conservation effort," says Eric Ronay, Eco-Cell's president. The company pays zoos and other organizations up to $15 per phone donated.
"Zoos represent a tremendous donor base," Ronay points out. "About 134 million people went to zoos in North America last year, more than major league baseball, football and basketball combined." In addition, he says that "zoos have a huge volunteer force that's willing to go out and help raise money" through programs such as cell-phone recycling. Eco-Cell is on target to collect 40,000 to 50,000 cell phones this year, with plenty of room for growth. There are 150 million cell phones in use in the United States today, with an estimated life of 18 months per unit.
While corporations are in denial and governments paralyzed, the humanitarian and environmental tragedy of the Congo continues to be fueled by wealth extraction. As homes and offices fill up with electronic equipment, as the world and cell phones alike become smaller, we cannot translate the weight of those pinhead tantalum capacitors into human and animal suffering beyond Col. Kurtz's final breath: the horror.
Joshua Seeds is an environmental scientist and writer. Casey Bush is a senior editor at The Bear Deluxe. He reviews and writes poetry from his home. Both writers live in Portland, Oregon.
This article first appeared in The Bear Deluxe Magazine's Summer-Fall 2007 issue.