Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones

Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones is the title of a report in Cellular News.

Coltan stands for columbite-tantalite, which is a metallic ore of niobium and tantalum. It resembles a crumbly white powder when the material is extracted. Eighty percent of the coltan in the world is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Refined coltan is important because it can store an electrical charge. The storage of minute quantities of electricity is essential to the operation of circuit boards, on which microchips sit. This includes the circuit boards in cell phones. As our thirst for cell phones grows, so does the need for coltan. According to a Uganda Gold Mining Ltd–a Canadian company, coltan is predicted to grow at a rate of 14 percent per year.

The tragedy in the Congo is that wars are fought and lives are lost in the struggle to control access to these minerals. Coltan sells at about $100US. A Congolese worker can earn 20 times as much mining coltan as doing other work. At one point the value of coltan peaked at $600US a kilogram. So it’s not surprising that wars might be fought and even spread to neighbouring countries such as Rwanda (which has no coltan of its own but, surprisingly, exports it).

But there’s an added environmental tragedy in the story of coltan.

The main area where Coltan is mined, also contains the [World Heritage Site] Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla. In Kahuzi Biega National Park the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130 as the ground is cleared to make mining easier. Not only has this reduced the available food for the Gorillas, the poverty caused by the displacement of the local populations by the miners has lead to Gorillas being killed and their meat being sold as “bush meat” to the miners and rebel armies that control the area. Within the Dem. Rep. of Congo as a whole, the U.N. Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight Dem. Rep. of Congo national parks has declined by 90% over the past 5 years, and only 3,000 now remain.

The gorillas are not inexorably doomed just because we must have cell phones.

Due to the damage caused to the Gorilla population and their natural habitat, companies that use Coltan are now starting to demand that their Coltan only comes from legitimately mined sources and is not a byproduct of the war. American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Dem. Rep. of Congo or from neighbouring countries. Such moves could lead to “Gorilla Safe” cellphones being marketed, much in the same way that Tuna meat is now sold as “Dolphin Safe”.

The question is, are we as consumers willing to demand “Gorilla Safe” certification for our cell phones? Are we willing to pay more for that product or eschew newer cooler models if those models fail to comply with the certification? We would have to be extremely vigilant because ensuring “Gorilla free” capacitors would demand that consumers take some role in monitoring each part of the manufacturing chain to prevent “bad” coltan from creeping in.

Other sources: BBC
United Nations
Born Free Foundation

One Response to “Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones”

  1. John Reeves says:

    Are computers made with this same substance, the columbite-tantalite? How does one find what products are “Gorilla free” ? Seems supply must be limited. And finaly, how are they able to get away with all this mining in [World Heritage Site] Kahuzi Biega National Park?