Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ending Conflict Coltan

High tech companies may no longer have an excuse to continue buying illicit tantalum fueling conflict in the Congo. From Business Week comes news about a major technical development that could transform the Congo's coltan industry. Coltan, of course, is short for colombo-tantalite, the latter forming a metal used in high-tech equipment such as cell phones. Illicit coltan production in the DRC has long been fingered as a primary source of the country's instability, as local and regional powers vie for control of the mines. This problem was particularly acute in 2000 through 2003, when prices for tantalum skyrocketed to $300 per pound. Although Business Week points out that today, less than two percent of the world's coltan comes from the Congo, and that "the odds that your phone contains conflict coltan are pretty long," activists maintain that the fight for control over tantalum production continues to destabilize the region. Many of these activists have urged high tech companies to police their supply chain and make sure that they aren't unwittingly funding civil war in Africa. One obstacle has been identifying where suppliers get their tantalum.

That problem may be solved. Business Week reports that there may be a new way to keep illegally mined coltan and other valuable metals off the market.
Frank Melcher, a scientist at Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover, leads a team that has devised a way to identify where ore comes from. Every coltan mine has its own geological history and composition. Melcher's team has already catalogued 600 unique coltan "fingerprints," and can tell precisely where ore comes from, even when batches from different locations are mixed together.

With backing from the German government, Melcher is pushing to set up a system in which legitimate mines would register their coltan fingerprints. An independent organization would spot-check ore and reject any that isn't in the approved database. "Our goal is to establish a certified trading chain between traders and consumers," Melcher says. Such a system could also be used to ensure that mines provide decent working conditions and meet environmental standards.

The problem is that the testing procedure is costly and time-consuming. But Melcher sounds optimistic that companies that use components containing tantalum will support his plan. "They don't want to be in the news again," he says.
This appears to be the relevant page from the German Institute.

Now we need a similar technique for tin, the production of which has replaced coltan in the Kivus as the major source of funds for Congolese militias, including General Nkunda's CNDP. (Update 11/28: See this article from Financial Times outlining some of the difficulties involved.)

For background, this story by Blaine Harden in 2001 in the New York Times magazine was the first major publication devoted to the subject. And this report by Global Witness was the first major NGO report. Both are excellent.

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