The Politics of Coltan

6 Min Read

Piece of tantalum, 1 cm in size-Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I received an email from Sarah asking if I would be happy to review a book called COLTAN  for Africa on the blog.  I didn’t ask questions but simply provided an address where the book could be sent.  When the book arrived I could not put it down- the subject matter challenged my ethics in ways I had never imagined possible/could never have anticipated

So what is COLTAN and why should its politics concern you/us? This extract from the book might help answer this question

COLTAN is an abbreviation of COLUMBITE TANTALITE a mixture of two mineral ores and is the common name for these ores in Eastern Congo. Whilst TANTALUM is the name of the metal extracted from TANTALITE bearing ores including COLTAN  after processing

The author Michael Nest takes us on a journey of how this once unknown mineral  came to be discussed at UN summits, in the media, activists websites, lecture rooms as well as how it is linked to the worst atrocities in modern history.In the politics of COLTAN Nest unravels the roles of China and its economic might, the rebel militia, transnational corporations, Hollywood celebrities and the activists in the production, trade and sale of this once obscure mineral

Nest provides a list of things that are derived from  COLTAN  and as you can see COLTAN is widely used in our day to day lives. It  is the uses to which COLTAN is put that challenged my ethics

  • Mobile phones
  • Laptops
  • Ipads
  • Ipods
  • Gaming Platforms
  • Memory chips
  • Igniter chips for car airbags
  • Jet engines/turbines
  • Space Vehicles
  • Cutting tools and drill bits
  • silicon wafers
  • Optical devices
  • Chemical equipment
  • Camera lenses
  • Military and Recreation ammunition
  • Inket jet printers
  • X-ray film
  • Surgical instruments
  • Hip replacements

The book is divided into 5 key chapters

  1. The Facts, figures and Myths surrounding
  2. The Organization of  production and markets
  3. The relationship between  COLTAN and the conflict in Congo
  4. The evolution of advocacy campaigns and initiatives
  5. The future of COLTAN

I found chapter 3 especially gripping- it deals with the conflict in Congo, the impact of the genocide in Rwanda on Congo and COLTAN per SE the role of the Rwandese and Uganda armies  in the Congo conflict  as well as the role of the armed groups in the production/extraction of  COLTAN.

In this chapter we learn that  COLTAN  is a source of finance for the armed groups in Eastern Congo, that  forced labour is used  in the extraction of  COLTAN,  we learn about the extent of sexual violence mostly against women, extra judicial killings  in addition to the recruitment of and use of child soldiers.

The role of Non government organizations and Hollywood celebrities is explored in chapter 4. These are the activists that seek to bring  issues such as the  sexual violence against women in the Congo amongst other things to light. These activists believe that there is  that there is a causal  link between COLTAN according to Nest and the ongoing conflict and as such the associated violence against women in Congo and  they  aim to make corporations more socially responsible in their sourcing habits  and one these include the banning of  Nest further discusses the various initiatives that have been attempted including one   that called for  NO BLOOD ON MY MOBILE PHONE .

A question that arises here is how easy is it to tell which COLTAN  is from the  war zones of Congo and if the West will not buy such  COLTAN due to consumer pressure will China have the same reservations?

This point is taken up in the final chapter, specifically that whilst the consumers in the West may force Corporations to reconsider how they source their COLTAN or  scrutinize their supply chains, folk in the developing world are unlikely to worry about such things and in fact that the fastest growing mobile phone usage is  in Africa with at least 14 million of those located in Congo as 2008.

The final chapter leaves us with an interesting question and perhaps one that we ought to discuss here


This is a must read book for anyone with an interest in ethics, the relationship between armed conflict and natural resources in Africa, the impact of various initiatives aimed at cleaning up the Extractive Industry and the rise of China as an investor in Africa. COLTAN  is published by


Share This Article