October 24, 2006

Coltan in the Congo

Coltan in the Congo

Blaine Harden’s remarkable article The Dirt in the New Machine starts with this memorable line:

Before you make another call on that cell phone, take a moment, close your eyes and reflect on all you’ve done for Mama Doudou, queen of the rain-forest whores.

Blaine Harden, The Dirt in the New Machine, The New York Times Magazine, 8/12/01

Illustration depicting coltan mining

Still from an animation about coltan mining and video games. [Norma V. Toraya]

The piece is about how mining for the mineral coltan, which is used to make components found in cell phones, laptops, and video game consoles, has transformed the Congo. Harden calls it “a squalid encounter between the global high-tech economy and one of the world’s most thoroughly ruined countries.” Things are so bad, Harden says, that even though coltan mining has disastrous social and environmental consequences, people in the Congo have calculated that the only thing worse than mining coltan would be not mining it.

Turns out that John le Carre‘s new novel, The Mission Song, also deals with coltan mining and its impact on the Congo. According to a review in The Independent, “the connection between Western consumption and African death lies at the heart of this novel.”

Back in July we started talking about the DRC, trying to figure out how we might be able to cover the complexity of that country. This seems like it might be a good way to get into that conversation. So as this show warms up, we’ll be looking into mining and its implications, and at the Congo at large. More soon.

Update, 11/14/06 2:58pm

So I’ve done a little digging on this story and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

There was a lot written about this story in 2001. It seems to be when the story broke and had the most traction. In addition to Blaine Harden’s piece, there was this excellent piece by Kristi Essick in the Industry Standard tracking the coltan supply chain from the Congo through the various distributors up to the multinational corporations like Intel that use it for consumer products, and this piece on NPR.

After realizing this story might be four years old and over, speaking with Blaine Harden, and reading this comment from the always insightful Ethan Zuckerman, I’m left with some doubts about this show. I’m doubtful a) that the coltan angle is the best way to approach a show about the Congo, and b) that the coltan story is a show in and of itself.

I’m going to take Ethan’s suggestion (and nother’s poetic reminder) and reconsider this show. Hopefully to make it about either the pilfering/colonialism of other resources, or more generally about the DRC. Thoughts?

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  • tbrucia

    It might be helpful if more folks knew what ‘coltan’ is, what it is used for, where it is mined, etc… A useful starting point (as is often the case) is the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan. For starters, how many people know that ‘coltan’ is a contraction for columbite and tantalite? Tantalum (Ta) has the atomic number 73 on the periodic table http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantalum . Columbium (better known as niobium) has an atomic weight of 41 and more information is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niobium . I hope this ‘informs’ the political discussions that will certainly ensue and provide some information.

  • nother

    The history of the Congo is ripe with meddling from the West, from plunderers plundering to the United Nations fumbling, and a dilapidated populace left in the wake. In this time of seeming hope for the Congo (the first free elections) I find myself pessimistic about it’s future.

    For Joseph Conrad in the “Heart of Darkness”, the Congo River is a metaphor for the fate of the Congo. “The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.”

    When Conrad was writing, the exploited resource that gleamed for the dark angles of our nature was ivory. When Mark Twain was writing, rubber was the nectar of our avarice.

    In Twain’s essay “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” he exposes the crimes of the Belgian imperialists in the Congo. “A small reward was offered and a rush was made for the rubber. ‘What strange white men, to give us cloth and beads for the sap of a wild vine.’ They rejoiced in what they thought their good fortune. But soon the reward was reduced until at last they were told to bring in the rubber for nothing. To this they tried to demur; but to their great surprise several were shot by the soldiers, and the rest were told, with many curses and blows, to go at once or more would be killed.”

    Twain is riled up in this interview from 1905:

    “Yet in these days the steamship and the electric cable have made the whole world one neighborhood. We cannot sit still and do nothing because the victims of Leopold’s lust for gold are so many thousands of miles away. His crimes are the concern of every one of us, of every man who feels that it is his duty as a man to prevent murder, no matter who is the murderer or how far away he seeks to commit his sordid crime.

    The UN is spending and has spent tons of money to establish free elections, but does any of it matter when the populace is so uneducated?

    Total population: 2.9 million

    Illiteracy rate (2000): 19.3 %

    Total expenditures for education (in % of GNP): 6.1 % (1989)

    Pupil/teacher ratio: 70 (1995-96)

    Is it not obvious that education should be the first priority? These elections are putting fresh frosting on an undercooked cake. It makes me skeptical of our true goals in the region. Is it a liberated and autonomous Congo we seek, or simply a stable and cooropertive Congo, still ripe for capitalist picking.

  • nother
  • This subject breaks my heart. I can’t bear the suffering we inflict upon others.

    Can we deny that we are colonialists? The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    Exploiting others by not paying the real cost of our consumption is the real root of our evil. (Nope, fundmentalists, it’s not gay men.)

    How do we change centuries of social indoctrination? How do we learn that sustainability demands us to pay the whole cost for that which we consume? How do we, as a culture, recalibrate our thinking so that it is aligned with a compassionate heart? Why is it okay for us to destroy the lives of others? How do we live with ourselves? And when we determine that it is not okay, how do we set things right? Where do we begin? Can we draft every citizen into a foreign service, wherein we must educate the people and help to construct a functioning society (in the terms they choose) in every country we have destructively impacted? Something. There must be something we can do to change course.

  • Guys, very glad to see you focusing on DRC. Coltan is certainly one of angles to understanding the conflict there, but it’s not the only commodity connected to conflict there. You could easily do shows focusing on any number of other minerals, or even on timber.

    Coltan got a great deal of attention a few years ago, and many of the folks who work on mobile telephony pointed out that most of the world’s coltan comes from Australia and Canada… it’s important to make sure that you don’t try to tie coltan too tightly to conflict, as there’s lots of coltan that isn’t obtained from conflict nations.

    In general, I’d say that the smartest people on this subject are the International Crisis Group folks – I’d urge you to let them broaden the conversation beyond coltan and towards the general issue of resources and conflict, which includes timber in Burma, diamonds throughout Africa and yes, that nasty black stuff called petroleum. Good talk online at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4097&l=1

    Really glad to see coltan on your agenda. Looking forward to the story.

  • JamesT

    After reading the Kristi Essick piece for background, I wonder what differentiates this story from other tales of extractive excess. Think of coal, gold, and diamonds. A different angle might be to develop a story about the effects of unfettered capitalism (is there any other kind?) on extractive industries in third world countries. The damage goes far beyond the environmental damage we suffer in first world nations. Or does it?

  • Robin, picking up on Allison’s point about the true cost of consumption (and production) and JamesT’s mention of unfettered capitalism, I think one important angle to develop is how to make more of what goes on in Africa part of our everyday stories.

    The middle and upper classes of wealthier nations can enjoy their material abundance only by silencing the sorrowful song-lines that lead back through the various stages of production to the original sites of resource extraction. Our computers don’t weep with the pain of human suffering and exploitation. Our clothes don’t moan from the hours of back-bending labour. Our cars don’t cry out for social justice.

    Instead, these products, shaped by the life-blood of distant others, are window dressed in a semiotics of smiling faces and happy times to help us drown out their anguished voices and disregard their desperate lives so we can carry on with our invented tales of “free” trade and “trickle down” and feel good about ourselves and our many wonderful things.

    This is the other story of colonialization and now globalization that has to become our story.

  • Hi Robin and others,

    I just got a new mobile phone yesterday and that reminded me that I had found a copy of “The Dirt in the New Machine” but hadn’t read it yet. I have now, went online to learn more and found out exactly what you did, the story seems to have dissappeared slightly because of the UN sanctions and pressure put on the phone companies by activist groups.

    So maybe the Coltan angle is the wrong one, but the DRC is going through great changes at the moment that brings up all sorts of interesting issues. The election seems to have been relatively successful considering the incredible difficulties that the size and lack of infrastructure cause. But now the losing candidate is refusing to accept the results and the situation is tense: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L16858058.htm Many people might not realise that the European Union has quite a large military mission there to assist with the elections, around 2000 troops from across Europe http://www.consilium.europa.eu/cms3_fo/showPage.asp?id=1091&lang=EN – one of the few attempts so far by the EU to project military power around the world. Some Europeans are suprised that the Congolese really do see them as “Europeans” and not in a good way!: http://www.hs.fi/english/article/COMMENTARY+Not+even+Finns+are+innocent+in+Kinshasa/1135222379378

    The UN does a list of 10 stories that have been ignored that year: http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/ Congo is one of them – but I think OpenSource should be proud because in the last year you have touched on most of the rest of them. But perhaps they could form the basis of a series of shows – like the “Race and Class” series?

    A couple of Congo bloggers I’ve found:



    A good news round up from a blogger here:


    Some background on the war:



  • The story “Africa’s unmended heart” in the Economist June 9 2005, is also a superb and heart-wrenching piece of journalism on the country. Its web address is: http://www.economist.com/world/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_QDVQRJV but you might have to be a subscriber to read that.

  • plnelson

    Exploiting others by not paying the real cost of our consumption is the real root of our evil. (Nope, fundmentalists, it’s not gay men.)


    Our computers don’t weep with the pain of human suffering and exploitation. Our clothes don’t moan from the hours of back-bending labour. Our cars don’t cry out for social justice.

    I think all this hand-wringing is disingenuous. Did anyone here see the cover story article in last week’s Business Week about how effectively Chinese manufuacturers are able to hide their abuse of workers from western monitors?

    Now, contrast that with the shopping mall parking lots that were so full at 5AM the day after Thanksgiving that stores had to limit customers coming in to avoid violating fire/occupancy laws. All to get a bargain.

    Everyone loves a bargain. And there’s a REASON why this thread and the “What does it take to get people to care about global warming” thread, between the two of them have far fewer posts than, say “Borat” or “Cursive” do! Driving to the mall in your Ford Explorer so you can get a great deal on an iPod or some running shoes is what’s important to most people. Anyone who doesn’t like it should join another species, because, to paraphrase Rummy, we don’t go shopping with the species we’d like, we go shopping with the species we’ve got.

  • Chirdon

    Thanks for the program in general (an elegant concept very well executed) and this proposed episode in particular. I appreciate the desire to get a narrow handle on a very broad reality–addressing the Congo in all its complexity is beyond the scope of even your fine hour-long format. Starting with coltan as a bite-sized entree seems wise in that regard.

    But I think you may have two proposals here–one to use coltan as the thin end of the wedge in a discussion of the Congo, and another to look at coltan as one of countless examples of how our consumption, however innocent it may seem, contributes directly to human suffering overseas. This does NOT, importantly, have to be a program about the guilt of the American consumer. After identifying some of the many ways our consumption fuels conflict, perpetuates poverty and degrades the environment, the program can highlight creative approaches to alternative trade in minerals, gems, coffee, timber, tea, cocoa, bananas, etc. There are loads of social entrepreneurs out there (many of them hyper-articulate and radio-friendly) who are trading essential items and finding ways to reconcile profits with concern for people and stewardship of the planet. There may not be a quick fix on the telephony issue, and the certification schemes on which alternative trade is increasingly reliant don’t solve these issues entirely, but they are refreshingly practical and actionable responses to the kinds of structural issues that lead most people to throw up their hands in frustration…

  • plnelson

    “There are loads of social entrepreneurs out there (many of them hyper-articulate and radio-friendly) who are trading essential items and finding ways to reconcile profits with concern for people and stewardship of the planet. “

    I don’t think these things have much significant positive impact, and in practice they may make things worse by giving consumers the false iconfidence that they are making a bigger difference than they are.

    So, some tiny group of social activists, Kumbayaa-singing church-basement Unitarians, tree-hugging liberals etc, make a point of buying “fair-traded” coffee or products made by companies that demonstrate their social consciousness by signing a pledge and putting a picture of some charismatic megafauna on their package. Meanwhile the Walmarts and cellphone manufacturers and all those vast factories owned by the PLA in the PRC consume more stuff in a day than the “think global act local” types consume in a year.

    This world is run by money – and I’m not talking about plutocrats at the top – I’m talking about the daily decisions made by BILLIONS of consumers around the planet with the money in their pockets and credit cards. If you want to change the world you have to give them economic and rational incentives to make decisions that have a positive impact. On a worldwide basis it is an atypical consumer who will pay more money or accept a compromised product just for philosophical reasons.

    If you can’t think of a way to do that, then you have to use the heavy, clumsy hand of governments, but N.B. that sometimes this works as in the case of ozone depleting chemicals, where recent studies show that we’ve finally started to close the ozone holes thanks to aggressive enforcement.

  • Bobo

    A shocking number courtesy of Hannah Arendt:

    In eleven years around the turn of the century, King Leopold of Belgium used administrative massacres to reduce the population of the Congo from an estimated 20-40 Million to roughly 8 Million.

    King Leopold’s brutality can never be forgotten when discussing the Congo.

  • Washington-based Congolese journalist Mvemba Dizolele has done some relevant work on Coltan: see his photos, article and film here.

  • Oh dear. html not working for me today. That link again: http://dizolele.com/?cat=23

  • danielsomers

    This is an extremely important topic and I hope you proceed with it. One possibility would be to look at the larger question of whether and when wealth in natural resources translates to a) dispersed wealth and general improvement in well-being or b) intensified domination and inequality and, frequently, violence. I believe there is an extensive literature in anthropology and political ecology on this, and I would think in other areas as well. You might start with Coltan as a prime example and one that hits home for people, but then broaden it to the larger questions and a discussion of the latest iterations of neo-colonialism. I’d be happy to check the literature on this if you need a hand.

  • nother

    Hi Robin, I just watched the third installment of the documentary version of “Guns Germs and Steel.” Mr. Diamond ends the film in Zambia. He talks about the effects of colonization but stresses that the “germs” are what is holding Africa back now, Specifically Malaria. A quote from the film: “It’s been estimated by eminent economists that the 1% negative growth each year in Africa over the last half a century can be attributed entirely to malaria.” In the film he says that colonization changed the way Africans live by clustering them in big groups, thus making them more susceptible.

    One possibility for this show would be to explore the effects of malaria, we hear about Aids in the news but not malaria.

    There are at least 300 million acute cases of malaria each year globally, resulting in more than a million deaths. Around 90% of these deaths occur in Africa, mostly in young children. Malaria is Africa’s leading cause of under-five mortality (20%) and constitutes 10% of the continent’s overall disease burden. It accounts for 40% of public health expenditure, 30-50% of inpatient admissions, and up to 50% of outpatient visits in areas with high malaria transmission.

  • nother
  • quixotes ghost

    Coltan Issues: colonial residue, Belgian incompetence, globalism hoax, Jane Goodall’s hopeless quest, Pygmy’s versus gorilla, American ignorance, commercialism, and apathy. The white man’s burden redux: the cynicism that passeth all understanding

    “An Afternoon in the Bush”


    Having worked with shit most of his life, Nathan knew his business. We had walked no more than half a kilometer when he found a turd that he identified by smell as lion. But we were safe because it was old and dry. “You see! No flies on it—the lion is long gone.”

    Shortly thereafter, we stepped into a clearing swarming with flies. After sniffing the air and kind of chewing on it, like professional nose judging perfumes, Nathan announced, “Hyena shitting ground.” He quickly found dozens of elongated turds covered with flies. “At least two days old,” he said, “but not yet five.”

    “How can you tell? I asked.

    “When hyena shit is very fresh, it is very sticky. When the fly drops her eggs, the shit traps them the easy. But after five days it dries up and is no good for the flies. This shit is still a little sticky”

    A mile further on, Father Pumpkin stepped in the middle of an enormous, glistening, pillow-shaped, pile of fresh dung.

    “Well, look at this,” said Nathan, as Father Pumpkin delicately removed his foot from the viscous heap. “Very, fresh gorilla shit. Could be less than ten minutes old,” he said, looking about fearfully.

    We all froze, and presently the air filled with a cloying, pungent fragrance, a musky jasmine. In a sun shaft just ahead, an enormous hairy hand reached up in slow motion to pluck a green shoot from a vine. The hand’s owner, a large silverback, materialized from the shadows. He lunged several yards in our direction and then rose up on his legs to thump his breast. The jasmine scent grew stronger, more fetid.

    “Ugly beast,” Father Maxwell whispered.

    Father Pumpkin slowly took out his Glock, but suddenly, from behind, a deafening explosion nearly shook us off our feet. With the top of his head neatly blown away, the silverback slumped to the ground.

    All at once, four Gandans clambered out from the bush. One carried a large shotgun. Father Pumpkin put away the Glock. “If I’m not mistaken, this was the work of a nine-ball Chevrotine cartridge,” he said.

    “What’s a Chevrotine cartridge?” I asked.

    “Designed exclusively for dropping gorillas,” he said. “Made only by a wily old French firm in Kinshasa.”

    The Gandan with the shotgun smiled as he walked by. “Chevrotine,” he said. “Chevrotine, very good.”

    Without another word, they set about dressing the carcass. With a short blade, they slit his jugular and propped him up to drain the blood. Then they cut along the centerline of the belly from the neck to the base of the tail, first through the hide, then the belly muscle, being careful to avoid puncturing the intestines. To remove the gut without soiling the meat, they carefully cut a hole around the anus and pulled the whole mass out in one piece. In less than half an hour, the once proud beast was reduced to a dozen bloody portions that were summarily packed away in black plastic bags.

    “I’m in such a quandary,” said Father Maxwell. “God forgive me, but it warms my heart to know that one more of these ugly beasts who stole my forest will make no more of his kind.”

    Just then, an argument broke out among the Gandans, each of whom coveted the penis, which, contrary to expectation, looked like the end of a fat man’s pinky with the nail removed—little more than an inch in length.

    “From an evolutionary perspective, the size of the vagina is the regulating factor for penis size,” explained Father Pumpkin. “And, of course, the size of the vagina is a function of the circumference of the offspring’s head.”

    “In other words, your gorilla is a rather small brained beast,” said Father Maxwell.

    “Chinese merchants in Kampala pay up to five hundred Euros if it is stretched out properly for drying. Otherwise it shrinks up,” said Nathan.

    “You could easily get twice that in Hong Kong,” said Father Pumpkin.

    Finally, the man with the shotgun forcibly took possession of the prized member and the Gandans slipped away into the bush with their booty.

    After a short lunch—sandwiches made with a pickled meat that Father Pumpkin refused to identify, causing Father Maxwell to giggle—we began a steep descent into a river valley. Devastated by abandoned surface mines and piles of spoil, the valley floor resembled a tropical World War I battleground. The river had apparently dried up for moved elsewhere.

    “Alas,” said Father Maxwell, “for a time this was truly the land of milk and honey. Hundreds of men were at work here and dozens of dealers were busy buying up the coltan for export. Even many Twa found work, because the money was so good. But when money got too good, and the war started in Congo, the Belgians put an end to it.”

    “To protect the environment?” I asked.

    “No, no, no,” said Father Pumpkin. “The environment is such a confusing abstraction; westerners need concrete issues—for example, the excessive quantities of gorilla meat found in the miner’s stew.

    “Too much money in the pockets of the Twa miners, if you ask me,” said Father Maxwell, “the Belgians always hated the Twa.”

    “Need I point out,” said Father Pumpkin, “that the Twa generally have no pockets to put money into.”

    But what is this coltan?” I asked.

    “Typical American question,” said Father Maxwell.

    “Refined coltan yields metallic tantalum,” said Father Pumpkin, “It’s both heat-resistant and has unique electrical properties. Most of your high-tech gizmos, particularly the cell phone, depend on tantalum-based capacitors to control circuit flow.”

    “Don’t believe in cell phones, myself,” I said. “The absence of solitude would drive me mad.”

    “You might be onto something there,” said Father Maxwell. “I’ve never been able to understand why the young people in America haven’t taken to the streets, particularly after the last election. Too busy talking on the phone, you think?”

    “Posh,” said Father Pumpkin. “I was in America once during an election and I couldn’t figure it out. The only issue seemed to be which candidate could spend the most money. And then afterwards they go around and ask the voters what the issues were.”

    “It’s like reading tea leaves,” I said. “The young folks have grown up with it and know it’s a hoax.”

    “So they prefer to sit around with some coltan-bearing device stuck in their ears,” said Father Maxwell.

    Some craters were water-filled and overgrown with thick green algae, while others were dry. Surrounding each was a pile of spoil. In one especially deep pit, we came upon a young fighter from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Barefoot and dressed in rags, he was no more a young teenager surrounded by empty palm wine bottles. He began shouting when he saw us.

    “What’s his problem?” I asked.

    “He’s drunk,” said Nathan. “Someone stole his Nikes and his commander threw him in the pit.”

    “Why would he do that?” I asked.

    “Without his shoes, he was no longer invisible,” said Nathan.”

  • enhabit

    this pattern of suffering from possesion of a resource..so prevalent in africa. does a colonial legacy such as we have in that region leave one to expect….that foreign companies will collude with the government to extract that resource? and the abuse suffered by the underpaid and unprotected labor force…clashes of cultures both unable to comprehend the priorities of the other…and the collateral irreplaceable consequences to the eco-system..we say that we want to know where our diamonds come from..a recent awareness..but do we have the same conscience if at all about oil? or gold? or even soybeans? lumber? oranges?

    i had lunch at a conference with an engineer from camaroon. in our brief conversation i learned that he is genuinely distraught over the oil situation in his homeland…the rest of the world just has no idea how bad it is he told me…the oil gets sold and the money disapears..while people are dislocated from home and sustainance…he then invited me..urged me even to bring my family to stay with his and see what is good about his country before it is all spoiled. such passion for the topic he had. i love the much maligned e-mail by the way..a wealth of connections.

    i am reminded of atlantic city in our own back yard..such promises of new schools and rising property values…the temptation to be an economic buccaneer is great in our society..greed ain’t got all the answers as some economists would have it.

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