The Politics of Coltan

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Piece of tantalum, 1 cm in size.

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

Enhanced by ZemantaIda


Managing Director at Ethnic Supplies
Ida is the curator of AFRICA ON THE BLOG  and founder of Ethnic Supplies a social enterprise working to alleviate poverty amongst East African women involved in textile and handicraft production. She is the Chair person of a community regeneration charity LET THEM HELP THEMSELVES OUT OF POVERTY. Get in touch @idahorner


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  1. says

    Wow Ida, I had no idea this was such a powerful book when I asked you to review it.

    I had no idea that Coltan was involved in the conflict in Eastern Congo or the impact of the loss of that mineral in western industry.

    Is Coltan the new oil?

  2. says

    Hi Sarah, For some reason your comment went to SPAM

    It is indeed a powerful book but it would appear that it has not received the attention it deserved. I couldn’t find anything substantial about the author nor the book!

    Reading through the book it would appear that COLTAN could be sourced elsewhere in the world but the challenge is most manufacturing is happening in China and China is not worried about sourcing from a war zone
    ethnicsupplies recently posted..What would you use wildsilk fabric forMy Profile

  3. says

    As long as the people of Congo won’t be given the opportunity to BE INFORMED and EDUCATED, there will never be peace there.
    You don’t expect the same people who benefit from these volatile situations to come back and offer solutions.
    There is a international campaign to leave people in Congo, especially those in the East as IGNORANTS as possible to walk over them.
    I have read thousands of article like this, very well pointing at issues but the people concerned are distracted, Congolese people in diaspora, those in power enjoy few millions in bribes and those in East Congo don’t know what’s happening on them.
    MONUSCO, the UN in Congo play along with international policies as I stated here, leaving the people as IGNORANT as possible.

    Congolese people should be given the chance and the opportunity to be EDUCATED and properly INFORMED.

    Simple eg. $ 2 billion given to MONUSCO every year since the beginning of this century could have given the country proper military powers to protect the country, proper policing (police) to protect people and the lands… among hundreds of examples. No proper media when the OKAPI RADIO is financed at $ 14 million a year but local TV stations cannot afford a $ 500 TV monitor.

    Thanks for the article, it’s great but It’s a deja vu, read these for years and I think it serve as entertainment, making other people safer than the next one, the poor Congo woman.

    Just another simple eg. Reuters and other western media report 400.000 women are raped in Congo every year ref: , and they come up with their best project of building “City of Joy” which can accommodate 100 women a year, REALLY! does it make sense? The people you call Hollywood stars came to the inauguration, you should guess how much their accommodation and transport alone could cost.

    So that I don’t get frustrated, I’ll just say this again:
    As long as the people of Congo won’t be given the opportunity to BE INFORMED and EDUCATED, there will never be peace there.

  4. says

    Whilst I agree with your sentiments in general- I disagree with this statement ——-
    Congolese people should be given the chance and the opportunity to be EDUCATED and properly INFORMED.—————

    If Congo or Africa in general sit and wait for “someone” to give us a chance then we are never going to change our circumstances. The chances and opportunities are there for the taking as is demonstrated in this book. Sadly the Congolese big me with guns are taking these very opportunities to the detriment of the vulnerable in Congo.

    If they changed their ways and not used forced labour/rape to extract Coltan that may well resolve some of the problems. What about using some of their profits to provide the education that you speak about? Should this take someone from elsewhere to provide too?

    Again it is very easy to shift the blame elsewhere but we as Africans ought to take some responsibility for our actions
    ethnicsupplies recently posted..The most commented on posts on Ethnic SuppliesMy Profile

    • says

      Do you really think when someone rapes one’s mother and that person talks about the rapist and his allies pinning her down it’s shifting blames?
      This is what is happening, it’s not something which just happened in the past, It’s live right now, although it’s been happening from the 1882 with Leopold of Belgium.

      But hey, disregard my comments or even delete them. I cannot change that Congo anyway, I’ll just keep on trying maybe I can start the process of that Change.

      Have a pleasant Sunday

      • says

        All I am saying to you is- if the Congolese people have decided to mine the Coltan for their own gains- I am happy for them but do they have to rape, maim the very people digging up this stuff. Why can’t this happen in a way where everyone gains?

        There is no doubt that what is going on in Eastern Congo is painful and whilst China and the West are taken to task over their buying of conflict Coltan, the Congolese War Lords should be taken to task too. Sadly in the capitalist world it is all about the profits, supply and demand.
        ethnicsupplies recently posted..Fashion fights poverty part 1My Profile

        • says

          Mass rapes happening in Congo are done by the Rwandan rebels, the FDLR.

          Some report of Congo soldiers raping also, and in their case, some are convicted but it’s a weapon of war for the Interahamwe.

          At the end of the day it’s all come down to the Congo governement to be responsible and organised.

          What’s is happening in East Congo is not normal at all.

          PS: And here again I remind you that the security of the people have been paid for to MONUSCO for a decade + and the result? 400.000 reported rapes. Inaonekana wazi kama hawa watu wa MONUSCO nao hawafanye kazi yao vizuri, it’s not a blame, It’s a fact.

  5. says

    Given the chance is not really about given money, it’s more about being left alone (as we say in Swahili).
    What can we do against the almighty USA / UK supporting Rwanda / Uganda ? Really.

    Our best African revolutionary (for me) Ghadaffi has been taken down, what can an un-organised Congo do to be left alone?

    That’s why I propose the Congo people be given the chance to be EDUCATED and properly INFORMED.

    The crazy Idea that if Congo closed it’s border no mobile phone will ever VIBRATE says it all (to me).

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