Coltan mining in the Congo River Basin
© Teresa and John Hart / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Used with permission.
Dial ‘m’ for mining the rainforest
As your cell phone rings and you bring it up to your ear, a tiny mineral piece from Africa is making this call possible: coltan. This commodity, along with other mining products from the Congo River Basin, is contributing to forest loss and unrest in the region.
What is coltan?Coltan, short for columbite tantalite, is the principal source of tantalum, a rare and valuable metal in huge demand in today's high technology industries.
Tantalum is an extremely hard, dense element that is highly resistant to corrosion. It has a very high melting point and is a good conductor of heat and electricity. Demand for tantalum has been growing since 1992, mainly due to the increase in applications for tantalum capacitors used in personal computers and mobile phones.
The race for coltanThe electronics industry is by far the biggest consumer of tantalum but there was a massive shorfall in 2000 and early 2001 as a result of the market demand for capacitors. This has put pressure on the mining of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and illegal exploitation soon became a serious problem during the second war, which broke out in 1998.1
A microchip component sifted from mudThe costs and technology involved in sourcing coltan are low – it is found by digging in the soil and it is easily sold. Eighty percent of the world’s coltan reserves are located in Africa, and 80% of the deposits are found in the eastern part of the DRC.2
Where’s the problem?Coltan is mainly extracted from forests. Mining activities are carried out by workers, many of who were once farmers, often working under the supervision of soldiers. The setting up of mining camps and the construction of routes to reach and take away coltan can be a threat to the forest and its wildlife.3
Coltan stocks are obtained in places such as the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, home to the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), and the Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei ). In 2004, it is estimated that over 10,000 people moved into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park to work in the mining industry.
As the pristine forest is denuded for mining, gorillas are being killed and their meat is sold as bushmeat to the miners and rebel armies that control the area.
In 2004 alone, 4,000 people are reported to have migrated to the eastern DRC’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve to mine coltan. The reserve is the only protected area in the world for the okapi.
1 IUCN. 23 April 2001. Coltan mining in World Heritage Sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo - Updated Summary. Press Release.
2 Global Witness. 2004. Same Old Story: A background study on natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Report.
3 World Rainforest Movement. Congo, Democratic Republic: Cell phones, forest destruction and death. Accessed 14/11/05.