Cruelty-Free Tantalum.

August 2nd, 2006 by Hugh

A slightly baffling but intriguing phrase caught my eye in an Exbiblio email recently: “Cruelty-free tantalum.” I wondered what this was about and had a look around the internet to find out more. I discovered that it is an evolving story, not unconnected with an event in the news.

CongoLast Sunday, the people of war-torn Congo queued up at the election booths in a remarkable exercise in democracy. Despite its official name, this was the first election in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1960. Congo is one of those countries that is, in a way, cursed by wealth. The violence that has raged since 1994 through this central African country is largely a battle to control Congo’s mineral resources which include diamonds, copper, and ores such as tantalite which is known locally as coltan.

Tantalum has has a high melting point and is capable of storing and slowly releasing an electric charge. Understandably, it is used widely in electronics. The rising popularity of mobile phones and gadgetry caused the value of this mineral to climb steeply during the 1990s, and then slump in 2000 along with the tech crash. 80% of the world’s tantalum is in Congo.

Many of Congo’s poorest farmers, including children, were drawn to tantalite ore, either as independent prospectors, or seeking work in the mines. Tantalite became a focus for fighting and banditry. Some of the deposits fell into the hands of rebels who used forced labour.

A tantalum rush ensued, and a legion of small farmers took their picks and shovels into Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park in search of the mineral. The park is one of the last habitats of the extremely shy and retiring mountain gorilla. The incursion of miners has posed a threat to the existence of last 250 gorillas living in the park.

The unfortunate set of circumstances surrounding Congolese tantalum has given rise to campaigning against buying this mineral from Congo. But things aren’t always so simple on the ground. Many local people found tantalum to be an important source of income, and were dismayed when prices fell in 2000. I quote from a BBC report:

“It’s our only way of making a living,” said Blanchard, an intermediary who travels upcountry to buy coltan from the small-scale miners and brings it back to Goma to sell. “There’s nothing else to do here.”

These distant events have a direct bearing on Exbiblio’s policy of ethical sourcing, but I’m not sure that this is a straight-forward moral issue. Tantalum has been a motivation for banditry and the exploitation of miners, and some of it is tainted by “blood” just as much as conflict diamonds. In some cases, its extraction has disturbed families of gorillas, but refugees from the war have also been a big problem for the animal life of the National Park. On the other side of the argument, tantalum has also provided income to extremely poor Congolese. Congo is still a violent place, but its nascent democracy needs all the help it can get. It needs to move on from the civil war in which almost 4 million people have died (mostly through hunger and disease)- a staggering death toll that has gone largely unnoticed by the world. You can buy tantalum from Australia, and be sure that your hands are clean, but can you be certain that you aren’t turning your back on one of the most needy parts of the world? Bear in mind the verdict of The Economist newspaper on the Congolese election:

The best chance for a generation, unless the world walks away.

3 Responses to “Cruelty-Free Tantalum.”

  1. Jeremy Faludi Says:

    A couple further notes about tantalum:

    - Coltan isn’t another name for tantalite, it’s a mix of tantalite and columbite. But they’re usually found together. See http://www.galleries.com/minerals/oxides/tantalit/tantalit.htm .

    - Although 80% of the world’s reserves are in the Congo, supposedly over 50% of the world’s present production is in Australia, by a company called sons of Gwalia. (Although another source says it’s just 25%.) Unfortunately this company went bankrupt, but its creditors are running it now, so apparently it’s still producing. There are also a few smaller tantalum mines in Canada and other places around the world. Depending where we source our capacitors, China might be the best choice because it’d require the least transportation energy to get the tantalum to the capacitor manufacturer (assuming the latter would also be in China; if they’re made in the US, we could source tantalum from Canada, etc.)

    - Raw materials like this are a fungible commodity, so sourcing good stuff might not reduce world demand for bad stuff. “Conflict-free” diamonds have had a positive impact, but diamonds are a luxury good usually given for symbolic/cultural purposes, while tantalum capacitors are used for hidden utilitarian components in commodity electronic devices, so it’s unclear whether conflict-free tantalum would affect the world market.

    - You have a good point about it being the only livelihood in some places, but even there, the miners themselves generally get only a tiny share of the profits. You would have to set up a “conflict free” and “fair trade” tantalum sourcing operation to really address this, which I think is beyond the scope of our budget and time.

    - It might still be worth a shot to try sourcing conflict-free tantalum from Australia or Canada, because maybe it would have a positive effect on the market, but even in the best of circumstances, tantalum capacitors are more energy-intensive to produce than aluminum-electrolytic or ceramics, because the scarcity of the material requires more transportation as mentioned above. Also, while the refining of tantalum uses less energy than the refining of aluminum, it uses much nastier chemicals (hydrofluoric acid, sulphuric acid, methyl isobutyl ketones), and because of its scarcity it’s not a renewable resource, so it’s not a good environmental choice anyway.

  2. Iris Says:

    Jeremy & Hugh,

    I’m not sure where you sourced your information from, but certainly not from commodity books about tantalum. Fact is that only 15% of global reserves are found in Africa, not the 80% that have always been quoted.

    This figure was even used by the IUCN when it started the conservation compaign in 2001, but somehow got changed to that far more “sexy” 80% and has been mindlessly replicated since.

    http://tierra.rediris.es/coltan/coltanenvir.pdf

    Also you should have a look at commodity prices for tantalum over the last 10 years. There was a huge spike in prices between end of 2000 until end of 2001 based on the internet bubble and speculation, but since then prices have come down to their normal levels. As a result illegal mining of coltan became basically unattractive to the Congolese. So they also stopped eating the gorillas.

    I think the whole coltan issue is a perfect example of the gap between changing markets and mounting campaigns, in this case market conditions changed rapidly but ethical campaigns have been very slow to notice (and might even contiue today).

  3. Jeremy Faludi Says:

    Iris, thanks very much for the corrections! Very useful paper.