Tantalum: A Bloody Future?
First there were "blood diamonds," the gems that fuelled conflict and human rights abuses in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Then there was "conflict cocoa," the chocolate source that is harvested by children and funds civil war in Ivory Coast. Now concern is rising about the minerals that go into common consumer electronics, such as cell phones and laptops.
According to human rights organizations and NGOs, such as Enough Project, one of the main minerals used in the creation of portable electronic devices is being mined in Africa's war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The mineral, known as coltan (short for columbite-tantalite), can be mined cheaply and then refined into what is commonly known as tantalum.
The worldwide supply of tantalum has been valued at US$6 billion and, with continuing advances in technology, that figure is bound to increase continually. However, leader companies such as Australia's Talison Minerals have been scaling down their operations instead of reaping the rewards of their market domination.
In December last year, Talison – which operates tantalum mines at Wodgina in the Pilbara and Greenbushes, three hours' drive south-east of Perth – postponed the second and largest of its mines at Wodgina – a decision that brought to a halt all of its tantalum mining and most of its processing.
Peter Robinson, a veteran mining executive who has been Talison's chief executive since 2006, says it is not just the fault of the prevailing economic climate.
The roots of Talison's problems lie in a conflict that is being fought 10,000 kilometres away on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
Unlike legitimate countries that export tantalum, the Congo is a nation dominated by warlords who slaughter innocent people in order to take land that is rich in coltan.
For much of the past decade, cheap supplies of tantalum, derived from mines under the control of various rebel groups based in the north-eastern regions of the DRC, have flowed into a long and complex supply chain. Among the groups profiting from this trade are the Hutu militia associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"There doesn't seem to be any shortage of material coming from that area," says Robinson. "People are making money wherever they can."
In the same way that the Taliban uses opium to fund its war in Afghanistan, and rebel groups in Colombia thrive off the proceeds of cocaine sales, the civil war in Congo is bankrolled by the sale of illegally mined "conflict resources" such as tantalum.
The International Rescue Committee refugee action group says that the conflict has resulted in the death of over 5.4 million Congolese over the past decade.
The Congo's minister of foreign affairs, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, adds that the fighting over these minerals has led to the "assassinations of civilians, deportations, torture, rape and the deliberate spreading of HIV/AIDS," as well as the displacement of millions of refugees. The entire scenario is very similar to the outrage over the export of diamonds from Africa that arose in the 1990s and inspired the acclaimed film, "Blood Diamond."
Unlike the diamond market, which has been severely clamped down on and regulated since the '90s, it seems that the market for tantalum is much more difficult to monitor.
"Most of the components that we get [come] from third-party providers, so where they get their raw goods is hard to determine," says Compaq spokesman, Arch Currid.
This atmosphere of uncertainty seems to be the norm for most of the leading technology-producing companies.
"Foreign companies are not asking serious questions about where products are coming from," says Carina Tertsakian, a team leader with Global Witness, a London-based NGO that investigates natural resource exploitation.
"They are quite happy to carry on buying minerals from [middle men] knowing that at least some of them may have been produced by or passed through the hands of armed groups," Tertsakian adds.
Only recently firms such as Motorola and Hewlett-Packard have publicly announced plans to look into the situation in order to ensure that the source of their minerals is legitimate. And, in May, the Luxembourg-based metals investor Traxys announced that it will cease buying ore from mines in eastern Congo from June 1. This company was named in a United Nations report last year for purchasing tin and coltan ore from companies with links to mines controlled by a Hutu rebel group.
Even if the companies want to help, experts say it is not easy. There is no certification system for minerals from the region. "Short of banning all minerals coming from the Eastern Congo or coming from Central Africa, it is going to be very difficult to set up a system on the ground that will be able to distinguish between good and bad minerals," says Jason Stearns, a former UN DR Congo investigator.
Simply avoiding minerals from Africa is not the perfect solution either, because rebels profit by other means, such as charcoal sales and bribery, and also because legitimately mined minerals are a critical economic driver for the region.
Many of the big companies are now members of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, which have a joint workgroup focused on mineral issues like those from DR Congo. A report by the groups last year noted the challenges of getting rid of illegally mined minerals, mainly because there is no mechanism to differentiate between "good" and "bad" sources. The report outlined goals to address the problem, including the commissioning of "supply chain transparency models" for tin, tantalum and cobalt, but notes that it would do so "without identifying their commercial relationships," thus putting it at odds with Enough's proposal.
Conflict Minerals Act
In an effort to stem the flow of money from mineral mines fuelling the civil war in Congo, the U.S. Senate is pushing ahead a new legislation that would force American companies to track and disclose the country of origin of minerals used in common electronic products to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world," says Richard Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, "simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer."
Durbin, along with Senators Sam Brownback, Republican from Kansas, Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, are sponsoring the Act.
The legislation would not only put the armed groups that control the eastern provinces of the Congo and their finances under increased scrutiny; it would also put a smile back on Robinson's face and on the faces of all of the main Australian tantalum market's players.
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