Black gold: On the Coltan trail

The manufacturers’ material of choice for mobile phones and consoles is killing the countries it's being plundered from…

Before 1998 columbite-tantalite, coltan, was an obscure natural resource. It is a mixed ore containing niobium (formerly columbium) and tantalum.

In eight years its necessity and value has increased due to rapid advancements in technology. Without coltan the technological industry would slip into crisis, with catastrophic repercussions across the Western world.

The United Nations (UN) proved illegal coltan exports from the main source in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has increased child labour and fuelled cross-border conflict throughout Central Africa, the objectives of war shifting from military success to a seizure of resources.

Despite international pressure condemning trade with countries harbouring appalling human rights records, the illegal exports of coltan continue for one reason - Western consumption of the latest mobile phones and computer game consoles.

Used in "super alloys" coltan strengthens, reduces corrosion and increases heat resistance. It is used in surgical implants, gas turbines, jet engines, ballistic missiles and nuclear reactors.

When tantalum is refined it is crushed into a heat-resistant powder and used to make tantalum capacitors, devices that store electrical charge and are capable of rapid release, combating power fluctuations.

It is this unique potential that makes coltan such a valuable resource. Today, tantalum capacitors are used in laptop computers, pagers, mobile phones and game consoles like Sony Playstation.

DRC contains 80 per cent of the world's entire coltan resources, which is mostly situated in the eastern provinces of Kivus and Orientale.

Coltan miners earn $10 to $50 a week, where other Congolese workers can expect $10 a month.

Miners extract the ore in a similar process as the Californian gold miners of the 1800s, digging the ore from craters in riverbeds and swilling the dirt in washtubs, the heavier coltan settling on the bottom.

Although not considered dangerous, evidence is emerging that tantalum causes tumours.

Child labour has increased alongside the escalating demand for coltan. In some areas of DRC 30 per cent of schoolchildren are reported working in mines.

In 1998 525 tons of tantalum was exported to America. Sixty per cent was used purely for the technological industry. That same year Uganda Gold Mining Limited predicted a 14 per cent annual increased growth rate.

The price jumped from $40 a kilo in 1998 to a high of $400 by 2000, steadying at around $100.

After Rwandan and Ugandan troops clashed in the Orientale province capital of Kisangani in May 2000, leaving 600,000 Congolese dead, the UN appointed an investigation panel into the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources.

The panel concluded Uganda president Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame of Rwanda were becoming the "godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources".

Individuals close to Museveni were reported to be personally profiting, including his brother Salim Saleh.

In 2002, the UN reported most of DRC coltan was mined illegally and exported across the eastern borders into Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi along with other resources like gold, diamonds, cassiterite, cobalt and timber. Other routes saw DRC resources exported through Zimbabwe.

Some 85 Western companies, 18 of which were UK-registered, were accused of "directly or indirectly, deliberately or through negligence" prolonging the 1998 war to enrich individuals and fund warring factions.

Five billion dollars of assets were transferred from the DRC state mining sector to Western business networks linked to political figures and the military.

At the request of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the UN panel instigated discussions with the listed companies, declaring in October the cases against them were "resolved" without providing reasons why.

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP and member of the 2003 Parliamentary All-Party Committee into Illegal Minerals and Conflict, called the UN results an "absolute scandal".

"You have a process in which the Security Council set up a panel of experts," he said. "They come up with allegations that couldn't be more grave, and nothing has happened as a result."

The All-Party Parliamentary Group accused Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Angola of plundering DRC natural resources, the first three specifically exploiting the coltan reserves. Rwanda was also accused of using prisoners to mine resources in Eastern DRC.

The international companies listed as major coltan manufacturers said they were unaware as to how or who mined the coltan for their products. Among the companies listed were Alcatel, Compaq, Dell, IBM Ericson, Nokia and Siemens. British companies Afrimex and Ventro-Star were also indicted.

By 2003 Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Rwanda all had troops in DRC, with Uganda and Rwanda prospering most from illegal resource mining.

A 1999 UN report stated 80 per cent of the $320 million Rwandan military budget was paid for by stolen DRC minerals. By 2001 the Rwandan army profited at least $20 million a month purely from coltan.

The Rwandan government defended their coltan exports, stating it was extracting 1440 tonnes of coltan per year from its own mines. This contradicted the UN report, which showed official Rwandan government statistics of coltan production were 83 tons per year.

To export illegally mined coltan a certain type of exporter is required. One exporter is alleged to be an ex-Russian KGB major who appeared on the April 2006 UN "assets freeze" list.

Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie, the government controlling Eastern DRC and the largest coltan resources, granted a monopoly on all coltan exports in 2000. Export contracts were received by Belgian company Cogecom Sprl.

German corporation Masingiro GmbH exported 75 tonnes of coltan to Germany via Ostend Airport between June and September 2001. The coltan was believed destined for the tantalum processing plant operated by Bayer subsidiary H.C. Starck.

Eighty per cent of DRC coltan arrives at the Sons of Gwalia in Australia for processing at the Wodgina and Greenbushes mining plants. Sons of Gwalia listed their two sole tantalum customers as the Cabot Corporation of the USA and Bayer's HC Starck.

According to a 2004 US Geological Survey, America received 450 tons of tantalum imports, 57 per cent of which was imported directly from Australia.

In August 2003, journalist and novelist Alex Shoumatoff gave a speech in New York on the ecological destruction of DRC and its indigenous gorilla population due to illegal logging and mining.

He stated most coltan resources ended up in America, through Pennsylvanian-based Cabot High Performance Materials, who made $100 million a year from grinding coltan into powder for capacitors.

Shoumatoff also implicated the Carlisle Group, the US-based global private equity investment firm fronted by George Bush senior. The board of directors lists among others ex-US Secretary of State James Baker III, ex-US Defence Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, ex-UK Prime Minister John Major and until October 2001 was the home to a $2.02 million investment from the Bin Laden family.

"Carlisle's biggest customer is the American military," Shoumatoff said. "A whole lot of coltan was just used in the attack on Iraq."

Four million people have died as a result of the war in DRC. There are 340,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, two million people are displaced and 18 million Congolese people have no public services. The human rights abuses are uncountable.

The UN and the All-Party Parliamentary Group stated it is the plundering of DRC natural resources that has escalated the war and created one of the worst the humanitarian crises in the world.

In June 2006 Norman Lamb described the 2002 UN report as a "damp squib", stating nothing happened to the companies indicted in the illegal coltan trade.

"The system is wholly floored," he said. "Public money is used to investigate then nothing is done.

"The UN says it has no powers of investigation and it is up to the individual countries to take effective action against those companies."

Lamb said it is the technology industry that is still absorbing a majority of coltan exports. He added companies should be held to account and prosecuted, but believed the only way to change the current situation was a "name and shame" and "consumer pressure" campaign.

Sony has stated their coltan supply does not come from DRC. But the dramatic increase in coltan reliance from the developed world has extended the conflict and has directly attributed to the deaths of millions.

As Labour MP Oona King put it to an Independent journalist in May 2006: "Kids in Congo are being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."