From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan. Discuss.
Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite - tantalite, a dull black, metallic ore from which the elements niobium (formerly "columbium") and tantalum are extracted. The niobium-dominant mineral is columbite, hence the "col" half of the term. The mineral concentrates dominated by tantalum are referred to as tantalite.
Tantalum from coltan is used in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers. Export of coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European and American markets has been cited by experts as helping to finance the present-day conflict in the Congo, with one aid agency asserting that “much of the finance sustaining the civil wars in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is directly connected to Coltan profits”. An estimated 5.4 million people have died since 1998 in the war in the Congo.
Tantalum is used primarily for the production of capacitors, particularly for applications requiring high performance, a small compact format and high reliability, ranging widely from hearing aids and pacemakers, to airbags, GPS, ignition systems and anti-lock braking systems in automobiles, through to laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, video cameras and digital cameras. The upsurge in electronic products over the past decade resulted in a peak in late 2000 with inflated high demand and price increases for the mineral which lasted a few months. In 2005 the price was still down at early 2000 levels.
The Rwandan occupation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a key factor preventing the DRC from exploiting its coltan reserves for its own benefit. Mining of the mineral is almost exclusively artisanal and small-scale. A 2003 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. An activist website, Toward Freedom, states that the search for coltan has fueled a brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo; they state that demand for coltan has caused Rwandan military groups and western mining companies to seek hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the rare metal, often by forcing prisoners-of-war and even children to work in the country's coltan mines.
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.
Toward Freedom claims that the 2000 launch of the Sony PlayStation 2 required a large increase in production of electric capacitors, which are primarily made with tantalum, which greatly increased the world price of the powder from $49/pound to a $275/pound, resulting in accelerated mining of the Congolese hills containing coltan. Sales of computers, mobile phones, and DVD players spiked around this same time. Sony claims it has discontinued its use of tantalum acquired from the Congo, and sourced it from a variety of mines in several different countries. University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh undergraduate student and blogger David Barouski claims “The coltan ore trades hands so many times from when it is mined to when SONY gets a processed product, that a company often has no idea where the original coltan ore came from, and frankly don't care to know. But statistical analysis shows it to be nearly inconceivable that SONY made all its PlayStations without using Congolese coltan."
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 like Bayer and the illegal coltan traffic. Likewise Johann Hari has written of the connections between coltan resources and the genocide in Congo. A United Nations committee investigating the plunder of gems and minerals in the Congo listed in its final report approximately 125 companies and individuals involved in business activities breaching international norms. Companies accused of irresponsible corporate behavior are for example Cabot, Eagle Wings Resources International, George Forrest Group and OM Group.
Currently, industry experts estimate that the majority of coltan from the DRC is being exported to China for processing into electronic-grade tantalum powder and wires.
The coltan mining area in the DRC is within one of the main ranges of the threatened Eastern Lowland gorilla. It is alleged that coltan mining could have severe environmental repercussions on the forests and wildlife in the area, in particular the gorilla.