“Two Children May Have Died for You to Have Your Mobile Phone”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has at least 64 percent of worldwide reserves of coltan, the colloquial African name for a dull black ore composed of two minerals, columbite and tantalite.
Tantalum, the metal extracted from this ore, is a rare, hard, blue-gray, lustrous transition metal that is highly corrosion resistant. It is used in the production of capacitors for electronic equipment such as mobile phones, computers and tablets, as well as in earphones, prosthetics, implants and turbine blades, among many other products.
“The DRC’s greatest curse is its wealth. The West and all the others who manufacture weapons have their noses stuck in there,” laments Jean-Bertin, who arrived eight years ago to the southern Spanish city of Málaga from Kinshasa, where his parents and two brothers still live.
The extraction of coltan contributes to maintaining one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in Africa, which has led to more than five million deaths, massive displacements of the population, and the rape of 300,000 women in the last 15 years, according to human rights organisations.
This fact was acknowledged by the United Nations Security Council in 2001, which confirmed the “links between the exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
As of 2003, a Panel of Experts convened by the Security Council had identified 157 companies and individuals from around the world involved in some way with the illegal extraction of valuable raw materials in the DRC.
The exploitation of coltan in dozens of informal mines, scattered throughout the jungle in the eastern DRC, is used for financing armed groups and the personal enrichment of military and government officials.
Artisanal mining, with no controls, is carried out in semi-slave labor conditions and causes significant damage to the environment and the health of workers, including children, according to the 2010 documentary film “Blood in the Mobile” by Danish director Frank Piasecki.
But industry sources, such as the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre (TIC), take pains to stress that the coltan reserves in the DRC and elsewhere in central Africa are far from being the world’s main source of tantalum.
Australia was the leading producer of tantalum for several years and production has recently grown in South America and Asia, in addition to production from other sources, such as recycling.