Blood Diamonds of the Digital Age: Coltan and the Eastern Congo

BY JEFFREY W. MANTZ

Nobody likes to hear about blood diamonds, that something venerated as our culture’s highest token of commitment and affection comes to us haunted by specters of oppression, cruelty and murder. It took a 2006 film with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role of a diamond-embezzling South African mercenary and a $100 million production budget from Warner Brothers to even begin to raise general public awareness about mineral exploitation in Africa. It is not surprising then that nearly a decade after a few daring investigative reports first emerged divulging how war in the eastern Congo was being fueled by the global trade in coltan—a dense silicate necessary for most of the electronic products we have today—both the ore itself and the story it told about the digital age linger in relative obscurity. Yet, the problem has not gone away. At the height of news reporting on coltan in 2001, the death toll was a couple million. In 2008, conservative estimates indicate that 5.4 million Congolese have lost their lives because of ongoing conflicts in the region, most of which has been and continues to be financed through the expropriation and sale of minerals. The problem is more endemic: the Congo suffers from what economist Jeffrey Sachs and others have called a resource curse. Rich in diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, cassiterite and coltan—columbite-tantalite, from which one gets the heat resistant conductor tantalum—the Congo has for centuries been persistently plundered by pirates, prospectors and profiteers anxious to make a killing capitalizing off its wealth. The Congo seems to have endured this curse ever since contact with the Europe in the late 15th century, from losing over 13 million in conflicts with the Portuguese and the transatlantic slave trade, to the frenetic expropriation of rubber and ivory under Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late 1800s and early 1900s which killed 10 million Congolese, through its role as a Cold War buffer under the US-backed 1965-1997 dictatorship of Mobuto Sese Seko, to the conflict of today. The Congo has continuously constituted a textbook example of the resource-death equation historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF COLTAN
Coltan used to be something Congolese miners threw away while looking for cassiterite. But in the 1990s it was discovered that tantalum, which is extracted from coltan, provided a uniquely dense platform for fashioning high charge conductors, ones that would become indispensable for a range of digital age technologies such as mobile telephones, gaming devices, and microprocessors. The explosion of digital age technologies in the 1990s and early 2000s happened to coincide with a conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo that had become so entrenched it came to be known as Africa’s First World War, a protracted engagement involving at least nine African nations and dozens of roving militias with varying and fickle loyalties. As digital technological development struggled to keep pace with global demand, the Congo—which holds an estimated 80% of the world’s coltan—increasingly became tapped for its extensive reserves, most notably with the release of the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2000, when coltan prices spiked tenfold because of supply shortages. All of this accelerated violence in the Congo, as coltan was traded by local militias for munitions. These militias, largely composed of child soldiers, are particularly known for their viciousness, as they gang rape, plunder and murder the populations of villages that happen to fall in their path, a strategy of terror designed to facilitate regional domination and unfettered compliance among local populations. Ecological devastation was wrought as protected forests held refuge for warlords and the dwindling populations of gorilla and elephants were consumed by starving child soldiers and wayward miners. At a time when digital age technologies are being hailed by globalization enthusiasts as ushering in a new kind of global era with some speaking prophetically about the death of distance, the productive underbelly of all this technological progress—all those who actually dig the stuff out of the ground in far flung locations so that our cell phones and Sony PlayStations work—struggles vainly to reach over digital divides. For all its mineral wealth, the Congo has a deteriorated infrastructure, a population that lives on less than a dollar a day, nearly non-existent health care, and an unabated humanitarian crisis. Yet for all the devastation that the global coltan trade has brought to the Congo, for all the attendant meanings one can ascribe to this mineral that make it so contrary to our digital age optimism, Congolese continue to see great potential in coltan and other minerals for bringing about maendeleo—in Swahili, a kind of development, or sense of moving forward. Interestingly, Congolese have seized upon the mineral trade with an inspired fortitude as they undulate precariously forward, improvising entire economies out of literally nothing in the forest.

THE GLOBAL FLOW OF COLTAN
Though there are a few high volume government regulated mines, most coltan is mined by artisans in remote villages in the eastern Congo. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands—by some estimates as many as a million—these creuseurs work without anything more than the most basic of tools. Often these coltan villages take days to get to from any major town or city over unfriendly terrain, either without roads or at best with poorly maintained dirt roads. The mines I visited in Numbi, in northern Kalehe territory in South Kivu,  I reached only by motorbike through the forest. It is astonishing then to see when one reaches these villages elaborately devised mines, complete with homemade water delivery and catchment systems, erupting in forests without the aid of any machinery. Village men and boys work the mines, digging and sorting out the valuable ore by hand, under treacherous conditions. Accidents and deaths in the mines are common; but creuseurs will tell you that this is the only way to make a decent living. The cattle have all been slaughtered or stolen. If you try to farm, soldiers are likely to seize your harvest. Yet ore that is pilfered can be replaced, as there is plenty to be found in the ground. Porters earning only a few dollars for what is usually at least a day-long walk through the forest carry sacks of coltan weighing as much as 50 lbs on their heads to middlemen. The latter are known as négociants, who are set up in larger villages with dirt road accessibility to major towns and cities. They, in turn, sell to larger négociants or comptoirs (accountants), usually in the provincial Kivu capitals of Goma or Bukavu, who distribute the ore to international buyers from markets as varied as Rwanda, South Africa, Belgium and China. Most coltan—still in form of bulk ore that needs refining into tantalum—is then funneled into Australia, the world’s largest tantalum producer. Since Australia also mines large amounts of coltan, any concrete determination of the origin of tantalum sold on the world market proves elusive. Americans, for instance, import nearly 80% of their tantalum from Australia, corresponding to 90% in terms of value, but there is no way of determining what percentage of that total originated in the Congo. The complex global exchange process, which underlies and mystifies this commodity, parallels that of the diamond trade and also helps to explain why many international organizations express feelings of paralysis in trying to tackle the issue and promulgate reforms.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
Development planners and Congolese government officials have actively advocated the need for a concerted effort to rein in all these itinerant forest miners. This would seem to control the blood coltan problem by centralizing mines in locales that are amenable to oversight and regulations. Moreover, this would foster favorable economies of scale for international sale since these mines can be easily made road and air accessible and mechanized. Indeed, some planners have even candidly decried artisanal miners as a problem or scourge for a stable mining industry. But for anyone that has had so much as a simple conversation with artisanal miners, the idea that they would simply go away, be absorbed as labor into massive government mines or return to agriculture is a naïve proposition. Congolese value their self-reliance, as under Mobutu’s dictatorship and in over a decade of war since his ouster they have become accustomed to having to fend for themselves, or as Mobutu directed them: débrouillez-vous. For miners whose agricultural land has fallen fallow, where labor for farming has become scarce because of war, where the cattle—which constitute bridewealth necessary for getting married, and thus are the sine qua non for stable households—are gone and need to be bought with cash, and where trust that the government or UN peacekeepers can provide stability and protection has eroded, the idea of abandoning mines is simply illogical. Perceptions to the contrary rely on a cultural misperception, one that presumes Congolese have the same sense of civil society as say, the French or Americans, and all of the concomitant trust in the political and economic structure that goes along with effective neoliberal development strategy. As economic sociologists and anthropologists have repeatedly demonstrated, economic rationalities must be socially embedded to be effective.

Part of the lack of faith in this political economy relates to a widespread recognition that the problem of conflict coltan really doesn’t exist at the level of production, but rather in the arena of exchange, where powerful international traders continue to exert oligopolistic control over the trade. These were the same traders who bought and sometimes are still buying coltan from warlords, and ironically some of the traders are warlords themselves. Any effective development strategy needs to seriously confront the problem of closed markets and the objective to replace the government-subsidized cartel over the mining sector with more sustainable institutional structures. The Congo would also be well served by investing in an effective tantalum refinery, rather than continuing to rely on these same elusive, expropriative routes of exchange. Lastly, corporate responsibility movements hold great promise in part because they have the potential of demystifying the mechanics of the trade, giving lending transparency to a process otherwise inaccessible to most independent researchers. A number of mobile telecommunication and other companies have actively attempted to figure out ways to certify coltan as free of conflict, as a branding strategy to encourage further consumers.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the resolution of the blood coltan issue is complacency. No one is likely to make a Hollywood blockbuster called “Blood Coltan”. Nonetheless, it is important to inspire a greater recognition of the culture under which Congolese mining operates, such that it aids policymakers and development planners to facilitate strategies that enable moral economies, ones that will work for establishing global mineral security, and a faith in the promises of the digital age.

Jeffrey W. Mantz (jmantz@gmu.edu) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at George Mason University (http://anthropology.gmu.edu).

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 1:42 pm and is filed under Africa, Development, Globalization, Human Rights, Neoliberalism, Peace and Conflict, Trade. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

 

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