Lynette Dumble & Jocelynne Scutt: Crass electronic gadgets fuel thirst for Congo’s Coltan deposits Print E-mail

   Saturday March 29 2014

Electronic gadgets cost more than money ....
By Lynette J. Dumble and Jocelynne A. Scutt

Self-confessed electronics fan Adam Turner, [The Age, March 22], deemed wearable gadgets as yet to meet his desires. Such technology fails to tick his boxes relating to simplicity, elegance, and value for money. Others would agree, though for some the reasons are distinctly unrelated to user-friendliness, cosmetic appearance, and price.

The central critique of newly emerging technical gadgets is unconnected to a mentality innately fearing and/or loathing technology per se.  Rather, the basis is humanitarian. It focuses on the source of the ingredient, Columbite-tantalite, essential for the manufacture of hi-tech appliances, including laptop computers, mobile phones and paging systems, digital and video cameras, game consoles and applications, and military missiles and drones.  

The Congo is home to 80 percent of the world's Columbite-tantalite. Known as Coltan, this black tar-like mineral produces a heat resistant powder uniquely capturing and retaining a high level of electric charge. These properties, together with a conductive ability in extreme temperatures, also make Coltan ideal for smart bomb guidance controls. Security analysts refer to it as a strategic mineral.

Yet in Central Africa, Coltan is known as a conflict mineral. According to a 2001 UN Report on the Illegal Exploitation of the Congo’s  Natural Resources, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and their proxy militias are the primary exploiters of the Congo’s Coltan.  

Mining is masterminded by rebels and foreign forces, then sold to foreign corporations. Although UN Reports on the Congo have not directly blamed multi-national corporations for the conflict in the country, they have stated that these companies serve as "the engine of the conflict in the DRC."

Mining facilities are described as 19th century. Miners are men and women refugees displaced during the Congo’s war which began back in 1998; prisoners as a result of the conflict; and children. They toil from dawn until dusk under the supervision of soldiers, without protective clothing, and in narrow tunnels with virtually no ventilation. Children are seen as a valuable resource since they can squeeze into the small Coltan-rich cavities within the makeshift mines located within the Eastern Congo’s riverbeds".

Adult miners are paid between $10 and $50 per week, considerably more than the country’s average monthly wage of $10 per month. Child miners, destined to remain illiterate in the absence of any schooling, receive just $1.50 per week.

Mining processes have turned the forests and fields into swamps, with lethal landslides a common occurrence. The toxic impact of Coltan, together with mining intrusions into animal habitat has reduced elephant numbers by 80 percent, and gorilla numbers by 90 percent. By and large, miners fail to fulfil the national life expectancy of 47 years due to malnutrition, Coltan toxicity, contagious diseases, and the extremely gruelling labour. Women miners face physical and emotional violence from both military overseers and co-workers. Estimates have two children paying with their lives for each kilogram of Coltan harvested.

Once the Coltan is processed, chiefly by corporations in the US, and others in Germany, China and Belgium, it is  sold  to companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony for the manufacture of electronic devices.

The market does not stop there. Coltan-dependent drone manufacturing companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, AeroVironment, and Textron in the US, Northrop Grumman in Australia, Prox Dynamics in Norway, Denel Dynamics in South Africa, and Israel’s Aerospace Industries report annual multi-billion dollar profits.   

While blood hi-tech has proceeded unabated, the world has lost its conscience when it comes to accepting responsibility for capitalising on a market largely financing a war witnessing the slaughter of an estimated six million of the Congo’s 70 million people, and the brutal rape and torture of in excess of 200,000 females - age being no protection against this atrocity.

Instead, as new technologies have emerged and new electronic devices are manufactured, the demand for the Congo’s Coltan has grown even larger. Right now there is no known substitute for Coltan, but the time is nigh for individuals to question whether we wish to remain complicit with the gross crimes against humanity in the Congo. For starters, who truthfully needs a new mobile phone each year, or a replacement iPad whenever a new colour range appears on the scene, or an expensive electronic gadget that will serve multiple futile functions while attached to the wrist?

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Dr Lynette Dumble is the founder and director of The Global Sisterhood Network, and Dr Jocelynne Scutt a barrister and human rights lawyer.