Monday, December 29, 2008

Talison Closes Wodgina; Coltan Prices to Rise

Another article here explores the consequences for DR Congo of Talison Minerals' decision to close its Wodgina mine. Background on Talison and tantalum is available here. Wodgina mine is the world’s largest tantalum operation, and supplied over 30 percent of the world’s tantalum demand in 2008. As a result of the closure, prices for the mineral will probably go up, leading to greater violence in Congo as militias compete for control of the coltan mines.

This news again underlines the importance of natural resources to the DRC's conflicts. Unfortunately, the international community isn't acting decisively on that issue. A UN ban on trading in "blood coltan" in itself provides little protection against the trade: According to Talison, some customers from countries such as China buy tantalum at discount prices from the DRC.

Moreover, the UN's new mandate for MONUC is weak when it comes to natural resources. It calls on the government of the DRC "to conduct... a mapping exercise of the main sites of illegal exploitation." And it calls on MONUC to use its "monitoring and inspection capacities" to curtail the illicit trade.

Neither of these proposals is likely to accomplish much. Ask peacekeepers to take notes, and you are all-but guaranteeing that they'll have a lot to take notes about. And telling the DRC government to make a map and check it twice--well, I'm not sure how many illegal coltan or tin traders are quaking in their boots as a result.

It's clear that there is sentiment for stronger action. Speaking after the adoption of the resolution, Karel de Gucht, Belgium's foreign minister, said the mandate authorized MONUC to act independently against all armed groups and reinforced MONUC actions to combat the illegal exploitation of mineral resources. And France's UN rep said that the mandate sends a signal "to the armed groups that the international community intended to fight against the illegal exploitation of natural resources."

Unfortunately, the strength and clarity of those words aren't really supported in the resolution itself. What's needed is real action, such as authorizing MONUC to take control of the mines, or going after the individuals and companies named in the recent UN experts report with all the seriousness with which we now go after terrorists and their financiers. Because that, after all, is what they are.

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