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What about Coltan Mining, Gorillas and War?

Updated on May 7, 2012
Coltan ore
Coltan ore
Tantalum capacitors
Tantalum capacitors

In the electronic age, the world can’t do without coltan

You may think: What the heck is coltan? Many people may not realize that coltan is one of the most important and expensive mineral ores in the world. It is used to make tantalum capacitors for electronic devices such as cell phones. As of 2010, it’s been estimated that in China and the United States combined over one billion people use cell phones. Now you have an idea of coltan’s value!

But coltan mining is causing trouble in areas such as the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. This extraction is destroying animal habitat, particularly that of Mountain Gorillas in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire, and the money made from such mining is paying for militias in the area's civil wars.

Please keep reading about the devastating impact of coltan mining in this region:

History of Coltan

Coltan is the industrial name for columbite-tantalite, a black metallic mineral which yields the elements niobium (formerly known as columbium) and tantalum. Chemists discovered both elements about 1800. But at the time chemists thought coltan only contained tantalum. The other element in coltan wasn’t recognized as niobium until 1864.

Coltan has been mined throughout the world in recent decades, with most of the production coming from Australia and Brazil. But in recent years most of the world’s production - perhaps as much as 80 per cent - has come from the DRC.

Uses of Coltan

The niobium in coltan is similar in physical and chemical properties to tantalum. Niobium wasn’t used commercially until the early twentieth century. Niobium is primarily used in alloys, especially in the production of steel to make gas pipelines. Interestingly, less than one per cent of niobium per weight improves the strength of steel. It is also used in superconducting alloys and magnets, as well as in electronics and optics.

As for the tantalum, which is highly conductive of heat and electricity, in the early 1900s it was used to make light bulb filaments, until replaced by tungsten in major usage. In the twenty-first century, tantalum, chemically inert and highly resistant to corrosion, has its primary usage in the electronic circuitry used to make mobile phones, DVD players, video games and computers.

Environmental Concerns of Coltan Mining

According to an article on the website, Cellular News, coltan mining in the DRC, as opposed to its mining in other countries, is extracted in a much more destructive way. First “miners” clear the land of all vegetation, making it easier to strip away the underlying mud. Miners then dig through the mud in the bottom of a stream, creating craters. The mud gathered from the forest is then dumped into the stream and then sloshed about, causing the heavier coltan ore to sink to the bottom where it can easily be gathered.

Unfortunately, this process causes environmental degradation in the steam and surrounding forest. Also, since this mining is often done in remote areas, the miners survive by eating bush meat, some of which coming from the endangered Mountain Gorillas, whose numbers have decreased dramatically. Eastern Lowland Gorillas have also been slaughtered in this fashion, and their numbers have plummeted by 90 per cent in recent years.

Coltan in the Battleground

A recent United Nations report claimed that all nations in Central Africa – the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi - have been involved in coltan mining to support military activities in a perpetual civil war that has gripped the region for the past 20 years. (So-called Blood Diamonds have also been used in this way to finance militias in other parts of Africa.) Countries other than the DRC often smuggle coltan from the DRC and then sell it to foreign countries. Reportedly, Rwanda has made as much as $250 million from coltan mining over an 18-month period.

Because of these factors, some countries have banned the importation of coltan from the DRC, and the UN Security Council has asked for a moratorium on the purchase and import of resources from the DRC.

An excellent article entitled “Rift in Paradise,” written by National Geographic in its November 2011 issue, describes the conflicting forces at work in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. For more information, please read this very informative article.


The Great Lakes Region in Central Africa is blessed with marvelous natural resources, but it is also beset with numerous problems such as overpopulation, ethnic strife, wildlife habitat degradation, AIDS, civil war and a lack of useable farmland. Unfortunately, coltan mining is fueling much of this trouble, especially in the DRC. So what’s to be done about it? Perhaps banning the exportation of coltan from the DRC is a good start. As for the other problems in the region, numerous solutions will probably be needed.

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    • profile image

      ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      Africa is such a rich and beautiful continent. It also remains the most exploited.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      Yes, ruffridyer, Africa has lots of natural resources. Unfortunately, it's also becoming overpopulated, particularly in the lovely Great Lakes Region. Too bad more people can't survive in the Sahara Desert. Later!

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