Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore used to produce the elements niobium and tantalum. Mineral concentrates containing tantalum are usually referred to as 'tantalite'. In appearance, coltan is a dull black mineral. The exportation of coltan helped fuel the war in the Congo, a conflict that has resulted in approximately 3.8 million deaths. Coltan is the ore for tantalum used in consumer electronics products such as cell-phones, DVD players, Computers and Games Consoles.
Production and supply
The main production of tantalum occurs in Australia, where the largest producer, Sons of Gwalia, operates two mines. Tantalum minerals are also mined in Canada, Brazil, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (80% of the world known reserves). Tantalum is also produced in Thailand and Malaysia as a by-product of tin mining and smelting.
The main supply is found in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is also found and sometimes produced in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Egypt.
Use and demand
Tantalum is used primarily for the production of capacitors, which are vital components in electronic devices, ranging widely from mobile phones to laptop computers. The upsurge in electronic products over the past decade has resulted in extraordinary demands and price increases for the mineral. These price increases have contributed to tension in the producing countries, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coltan in the Congo
The Congo is a politically unstable area. The Rwandan occupation in the east of the Congo has meant the DRC has been unable to exploit the resource for its own benefit. A recent UN Security Council report charged that a great deal of the ore is mined illegally and smuggled over the country's eastern borders by militias from neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.
Coltan smuggling has also been implicated as a major source of income for the military occupation of Congo. To many, this raises ethical questions akin to those of conflict diamonds. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several electronics manufacturers have decided to forgo central African coltan altogether, relying on other sources.
All three countries named by the United Nations as smugglers of coltan have denied being involved. Austrian journalist Klaus Werner has documented links between multi-national companies and the illegal coltan traffic.
The coltan mining area is within one of the main ranges of the threatened Eastern Lowland gorilla. It is also alleged that coltan mining could have severe environmental repercussions on the forests and wildlife in the area, in particular the gorilla.
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, 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 (a country with traditionally close links to the 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 brought about by the bankruptcy of the world's biggest supplier, Australia's Sons of Gwalia, although the company continues to produce and export ore.