The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is endowed with natural resources, with rich mineral deposits worth more than US $24 trillion. Columbite tantalite (Coltan) is one of the precious and strategic minerals extracted in the Central African country.
The DRC's coltan production reached 700 tonnes in 2021, making it the world's largest coltan producer. Coltan is a critical component in the production of all modern technological products. Tantalum powder, refined from coltan, is used to create heat-resistant capacitors in laptops, cellphones, and other high-end electronic equipment.
Recent investigations, however, have revealed that coltan mining in the DRC is happening at the expense of the environment and the local population. Coltan exploitation has been linked to large-scale environmental degradation and human rights violations in the region.
Coltan is mined in a quite basic manner. Miners dig enormous craters in streambeds simultaneously, scraping away soil from the surface to get at the coltan beneath. This has an impact on biodiversity in the environment and disrupts ecosystems near mining sites.
According to data from the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch platform, the DRC has lost 8.6 percent of its forest cover since 2000. Mining is one of the main sources of deforestation in the DRC.
Prior to coltan mining, environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out. Even heritage sites, such as Kahuzi Biega National Park, are violated by artisanal miners and multinational enterprises.
The majority of artisanal coltan miners work in areas where the government has little jurisdiction. They simply take as much coltan as they can without regard to the law. While the DRC Ministry of Mining recommends that miners dig no more than 30 meters beneath the surface, some artisans have been known to dig as far as 200 meters.
Coltan mining has a negative impact on wildlife habitats. For example, the Kahuzi Biega National Park, which is one of the few sanctuaries for the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, has been affected. The mining in the region has left the gorilla vulnerable and susceptible to poachers. When coltan mining began, the park's gorilla population declined from 8,000 in 1991 to around 40 in 2005. The current population is estimated to be 250.
Mineral separation, sieving, and sorting are all done manually by washing in streams and rivers. The chemicals utilized pollute water bodies and are toxic to aquatic animals. The compounds have also been linked to the production of radioactive materials that are harmful to human health.
Impact On Humans
Coltan miners' and associated enterprises' operations are exploitative and impoverish communities. Observers have noted that coltan mining companies rarely compensate affected communities by establishing development programs, despite the fact that this is a legal duty under mining legislation.
Hundreds of artisanal miners have died in DRC, as a result of coltan mining-related activities. After artisanal mining activities have halted, holes created are rarely covered and in some instances miners have been trapped underground due to landslides.
In 2017, the DRC's mining code was updated to make it illegal to use child labor or sell ore mined by children. Nonetheless, approximately 40,000 juvenile miners work to extract the majority of the country's coltan.
Child miners operate in hazardous conditions and are at risk of getting sick, being harassed, and being abused. The majority of them have dropped out of school and some have never had the opportunity to attend school.
The amount of coltan mined by child labor is still unknown, uncertified, and untraceable. Through smuggling, counterfeiting, and collaboration, it is exchanged in the underground economy and fed into the global coca supply chain.
The Congolese Environment Agency needs to be reformed so that environmental impact assessments and environmental management plans can be enforced.
Local observatories should be trained and equipped by civil society organizations to monitor and report on coltan mining sites. This will create a shadow report that can be compared to audits conducted by governmental agents.
Upstream firms that mine and refine coltan are recommended to manage environmental hazards connected with their activities in accordance with worldwide best practices.