Resource 5: Mining Tantalum – a controversial issue
Background information / subject knowledge for teacher
Tantalum is a transition metal, required in the manufacture of cell phones. It is mined in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The result of this mining is threatening the gorillas who live in the forests where the metal ore is found.
What is coltan?
Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is a metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum, found mainly in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally Zaire). When refined, coltan becomes a heat-resistant powder, metallic tantalum, which has unique properties for storing electrical charge. It is therefore a vital component in the capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards.
Eighty percent of the world’s known coltan supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo by groups of men digging basins in streams by scraping off the surface mud. They then ‘slosh’ the water around the crater, which causes the coltan ore to settle to the bottom of the crater where it is retrieved by the miners. A team can ‘mine’ 1 kg of coltan per day. The effect of this is to release mud which can travel downstream and cause the river to silt up and divert underground. In the long term, this can cause serious problems for farmers downstream.
The technology boom caused the price of coltan to increase considerably. A coltan miner can earn as much as US$200 per month, compared with a typical salary of US$10 per month for the average Congolese worker.
Part of the DRC is the last stronghold of the eastern lowland gorilla, which is in drastic decline. There is evidence suggesting that in the last five years eastern lowland gorillas have declined by 80–90%, with just 3000 or so animals left alive. But eastern DRC is a war zone, where factions vie for power across the borders of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The British primatologist, Ian Redmond says: ‘To work in the park, the miners have to pay one spoonful of coltan to the military, and one spoon to the local chief. That means about $15. There are about 15 000 people working here, each paying $15 per week to the military who control the region. That's something in the region of $1m a month going into the pockets of the militia.’
Unwittingly, the users of mobile phones and other devices incorporating coltan are contributing to the apes' downfall.
Dr Jane Goodall, renowned for her four decades of work with chimpanzees, says the problem has become acute in the last 10 years, as big logging companies, especially European ones, and miners open up the forests. She says: ‘Hunters from the towns go along the roads and shoot everything – elephants, apes, monkeys, bats and birds. They smoke it, load it on to the trucks and take it into the cities. It doesn't feed starving people, but people who'll pay more for bushmeat.’
‘The pygmy hunters who've lived in harmony with the forest for hundreds of years are now being given guns and ammunition and paid to shoot for the logging camps. And that's absolutely not sustainable.
The animals have gone, the forest is silent, and when the loggers finally move what's left for the indigenous people? Nothing.’
Questions for your students to consider
The situation in the DRC is highly complex. You could ask your students to analyse the article and identify all the separate problems.
Clearly, there is no easy solution. But discussion will help your students to realise that governance and education are very important in solving problems caused by science and technology.
Some of the problems that they should be able to identify are:
- The method of collecting the ore releases mud which can cause problems downstream.
- The large salaries for the miners mean that they will take risks and this disrupts the local economy. People are less willing to do vital, but low paid jobs.
- Coltan mining removes the vegetation which is destroying habitats and threatening the survival of the mountain gorillas.
- The army take bribes, taking money out of the local economy.
- Nature’s balance is being upset, making it difficult for tribes who have lived for thousands of years in the forest to survive. They are being displaced, without a good alternative being available.
- When animals are killed, it can upset the food chain, threatening many species.
- This has a bad effect on the tourist industry. In other parts of Africa, the tourist industry has a very positive effect on the economy.