Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blood Mobiles: The Story of Coltan and Congo

Reading is a bad habit, especially when you began to understand the meaning of written words. Even if a paper is laid over a heap of shit, still without actually picking it up, we will force our eyes to read it, no matter what other people might be thinking about it.

As I junked the previous week’s edition of Times of India- Crest, as similar, if not identical, thing happened. My eyes caught the same photograph which had forced me to buy that edition. Unable to hold myself, I de-junked the paper and began to read that specific article (Blood on your handset? By Fatima Najm). It was about a rare mineral called Coltan.

Blood diamond, the term may catch your attention, but Blood Coltan will not, because no Leonardo Dicaprio or Kayne West has made a movie or sang a song about it. But Coltan, a colloquial African name of Columbite-tantalite, is that rare metal without which wireless world will grind to a halt.

Coltan is a superb conductor of electricity and finds its way into almost every mobile, laptop and DVD player. It is essential to manufacture of electrical components known as pinhead capacitors. These capacitors regulate voltage and store energy. Its strength, high density and chemical properties make it valuable in High-tech industry. Even US Department of Defense classifies it as a strategic metal and hoards large amount of the same.

Although this metal is found is various parts of the world, like China, Australia, Venezuela etc, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire, a country that you might have remember to have read in your fifth class geography book) claimed to have more than 80% of this metal’s global reserve. But the Congo has its history, a history written in blood. And its writers are Belgium, USA, and innumerable local militias and mercenaries of its neighboring countries.

Congo, or Heart of Darkness as mentioned by Joseph Conrad, is a country in the middle of the African Continent. This country’s actual exploitation began when it was first colonized by King Leopold II of Belgium. He treated this territory not as a part of Belgium but as his private property a company, as Congo Free State. In the name of building roads and hospitals, first the company looted the ivory and then with the invention of bicycle the rubber for the tires. The severity of the rule was such that if a slave is unable to attain his daily quota of latex his limbs were chopped off. It was the first genocide of Congo, wherein it lost half of its population. With protests from people like Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle and others, in 1908 the Belgian parliament with initial reluctance, took over the Congo Free State as a Belgian colony. Close to 10 million people died in Congo Free State due to exploitation. It was the first genocide.

The problems didn’t ended here either, after its independence in 1960 it plunged into political crisis. Fueled by Belgium and USA for the quest of copper and diamond mines, the country plunged into dictatorship. The Dictator, Joseph Desire Mobutu, was supported by US because he was averse to communism. But in fact it support of US was there because it was rich mineral base with low labor standards, a source of cheap minerals. Mobutu embezzled billions of dollars meant for Zaire (it was Zaire then) virtually bankrupting the country. The infrastructure was quarter of what it was in 1960. After the end of Cold War, US support weaned away. Then Congo entered another crisis.

It was problem of its neighbors which spilled onto it. The ethnic violence in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi spiraled into Congo and the respective countries invaded each other. The end result was first Congo war. It resulted in overthrowing of the Mobutu and renaming the country as Democratic Republic of Congo. The new government was under the powered by the militaries of Rwanda and Uganda, who wanted to control its large and resource rich neighbor. When the new President Laurent Kabila asked the foreign troops to leave, they in turn, fueled other militias to overthrow the government. Each country tried to outmaneuver each other in the battlefield which was Congo; each wanted the shares of mineral rich provinces. This led to the second Congo war, also known as African World War, involving seven countries, countless militias and private armies. A conflict, which official has ended on paper in 2003, but repercussions are felt every day.

This Second Congo War, till today has claimed more than 5.4 million lives and being rightly termed as Second Congo Genocide. Each party wants to control the mineral rich provinces. Everyone wants to have a pound of it. Politicians want to keep it going because it is what keeps them in power. There is no big international examination of it because it is one of the most convoluted trades in the world, the mineral changes a dozen hands before being handled by the manufacturer. After the year 2000 the prices spiked which led to massive mining of the metal but as the price eased down it left thousands involved in its mining, either voluntarily or under pressure of militia who use illegal mining to fund their wars.

Congo is a resource rich country, and its powerful river system has the potential to power all of the Africa’s electricity needs. Stability of Congo will translate into peace and progress for all Africa, but at least five neighboring countries have proxy militias in addition to local rebels battling each other in Congo for control of Coltan. Demand for the ore has spiraled internationally with massive demand for mobile handsets and electronics in India and China.

Resources Curse is what is called when a resource rich country is underdeveloped. Congo’s Red Earth is rich in minerals, but it is one of the most corrupt and underdeveloped countries of the world, with each party to the conflict wanting a piece of minerals. Its resources which could be its boon is and was being its being, first exploited by Belgians, then by various others. The country is virtually gang raped for its resources. Now the question is how much blood can we afford on our keypads. How many lives we press upon when we send an SMS. Do we really get the hungry screams of thousands who were massacred for this metal?

But alas there can’t be any notoriety about it. Blood Diamond is glamorous, Blood Coltan isn’t. In the candid words of a Congolese mining official, “There is a cold and calculated cruelty about the massacre of people and the clearing of forests for Coltan, but blood diamond sounds glamorous, blood coltan doesn’t mean anything. I cannot imagine Leonardo Dicaprio making that movie, maybe George Clooney? Maybe not.”

It might be surprising to know that uranium for the bombs that devastated Japan came from the mines of the Congo. American came there mined the mineral closed the mine and went away. Leaving the mines prey to illegal miners and global nuclear proliferation regime. That is uranium, which has invited ire of US on countries like Iran, North Korea, Iraq and Syria. This is coltan mainstay for the industry based across the western hemisphere, China, South Korea and Japan. Even though Australia produces 80% of the mineral, Congo has 80% of its available resources.

© Tarun Mitra


1. “Blood on your handset?” by Fatima Najm, Times of India Crest Edition, November 7, 2009

2. http://www.friendsofthecongo.org/new/coltan.php

3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1468772.stm

4. http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40150.html

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DR_Congo

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kivu_Conflict

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Congo_War

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Congo_War


DRIVEN said...

Everyone is exploiting everyother person, some are more henious some are not. Strong country expoites weaker country and stronger people exploits weaker people.

But the story of Congo is really an eyeopener that even in today's time such things are happening.

Megha said...

The underdeveloped countries and even the developing countries like India for that matter have their own sad stories. The reason is the people with power and corruption. It's clear and evident but yet hidden and overlooked :(

Tarun Mitra said...

@ Rajat and Megha

Thanks for sharing your view...:)

Anonymous said...

amazing stuff thanx :)

Anonymous said...

And that as a result..

keith harmon snow said...


Thank you for breaking the silence. The comments you make about Mobutu are pretty much teh standard propaganda line. It's importnat to recognize that the Mobutu era was more than just Mobutu "embezzlings billons" off to Swiss banks. The same players who backed Mobutu back blooshed and plunder today. The biggest names -- the untouchables -- include Maurice and Leon Tempelsman, Louis Michel, Philippe De Moerloose, Etienne Davignon, George Forrest, Billy Rautenbach and John Bredenkamp -- to name a very few. There is also the Indian family KOTECHA. We need to demand that these people (and others, esp. Wlater Kansteiner and Sam Jonah) be held accountable and prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These are the backers behind the war criminals like Museveni and Kagame.

Tarun Mitra said...

@ 2 anonymous...plz give ur name...

@Keith thanks for your comments..and best of luck for your fights...the article is about people, not the dictators...

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Tarun Mitra said...

@ Anon I am getting sick of Anonymous Posts please give ur name