Coltan, Cell Phones, and Conflict: The War Economy of the DRCDecember 2, 2008 By Will Rogers
Eclipsed by the world economic downturn, the great heist of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) resources continues unabated. In recent weeks, former Congolese General Laurent Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels have launched offensives in North Kivu, and the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers have been hard-pressed to stop them.
With some of the world’s greatest reserves of minerals, metals, natural gas, and oil—including 10 percent of global copper reserves and 33 percent of global cobalt reserves, in addition to vast deposits of diamonds, gold, silver, timber, uranium, and zinc—eastern DRC has frequently been exploited by rebel groups, foreign militaries, and international firms looking to fill their coffers. Other African conflicts have been sustained by diamonds and gold, but in the eastern DRC, columbo-tantalite (coltan), is one of the most coveted commodities. And with 80 percent of global reserves of coltan lying in the DRC, coltan has become the new “black gold”.
Coltan is refined into tantalum powder to make heat-resistant capacitors in cell phones, laptops, and other high-end electronics. With global technological innovation on the rise, the demand for the mineral continues to surge, creating the incentive for miners and traders to step up their efforts to extract it. At its peak in September 2001, coltan traded at close to $400 per kilo; today, the market price has steadied at around $100 per kilo.
Struggle for control over coltan mines remains central to the conflict in eastern DRC, which has claimed more than four million lives over the past decade. Whether it is a Hutu militia like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which fled
following the 1994 genocide; a Congolese rebel faction, like Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels; or the Congolese army itself, each has a stake in the lucrative coltan trade. Rwanda
These groups, including the Congolese army, have been active in extorting coltan miners, as demonstrated by footage from “Blood Coltan.” With coltan miners earning $10 to $50 a week, five times more than most other Congolese earn in a month, government and rebel troops have taxed the miners for access to the mines—making control of the mines and surrounding land violently competitive. Despite the dangerous conditions of the mines, which have led to countless deaths, workers remain plentiful. And as demand for coltan has increased in recent years, the number of child laborers in the mines has grown, with approximately 30 percent of schoolchildren in the region deferring their education for mining work.
In addition to the human toll, coltan exploitation has also proven severely destructive to the region’s environment and biodiversity. North and South Kivu provinces contain the DRC’s greatest concentrations of coltan, and Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP), one of the last sanctuaries for the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, spans both provinces. Coltan mining has destroyed much of the gorillas’ natural habitat, leaving them vulnerable to poachers who kill them and sell them to coltan miners and rebel groups for food. According to park surveys, the population of eastern lowland gorillas in KBNP plummeted from 8,000 in 1991 to approximately 40 in 2005.
DRC Ambassador to the United States Faida Mitifu, speaking recently at a U.S. Institute of Peace event, urged the U.S. Congress to adopt what she describes as a Kimberly Process for coltan in an effort to end the illegal export of coltan from eastern DRC. A “Goma Process” could certify the origin of coltan and place punitive levies on those involved in the trade of conflict coltan from eastern DRC—much as the Kimberly Process does for diamonds. Meanwhile, building infrastructure and creating a regulated sustainable resource extraction industry could also help the country generate much needed revenue and profitable trade regimes. But given that coltan is smuggled into Rwanda and other bordering countries and traded to non-U.S. markets, the support of the international community and the UN Security Council would be critical to the success of this initiative and creating a lasting peace in the region. The UN Security Council has already condemned coltan’s role in financing conflict, so the creation of a Goma Process could be a logical—and achievable—next step.
Photo: In this makeshift refugee camp in Mugunga, 10 kilometers from Goma in North Kivu, tens of thousands remain displaced by ongoing conflict in eastern DRC. Courtesy of flickr user Julien Harneis.
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