In this age of rapid technological advancements, most people now own mobile phones, laptops, and many other high-end electronic devices. But few care to question the origins of the materials used to power these devices. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country endowed with abundant natural resources and the country has never known peace because of the scramble of such resources – resources now used to power the world’s burgeoning electronics market.
Columbo-tantalite ore, commonly known as coltan, is one of the resources keeping DRC perennially locked in the shackles of devastating conflicts. It is found in eastern DRC and the covetousness of this mineral, also known as “black gold,” has led to some of the most appalling labour conditions in the world. 80% of the world’s reserves of coltan are situated in the DRC. One can imagine the untold suffering that the Congolese have to go through due to the astronomical demand of this mineral.
Coltan is an indispensable raw material used for making technological devices in our contemporary age. It has played a huge role in miniaturizing such devices. Smartphones, laptops, gaming equipment, medical equipment, electric cars, and many other inventions now rely on coltan for their efficiency. Coltan is used to manufacture heat-resistant capacitors, a fundamental component of electronics. It allows electrical charges to be stored in small capacitors. Voltage is regulated and more energy is stored in devices such as mobile phones. Handheld devices like smartphones can hold as much power as possible. The global demand for these devices is soaring at levels never witnessed before, but it is important to remind each other that these devices we hold dear to our hearts because of capitalist materialism/consumerism are made through the blood of coltan.
To say the mining of coltan is controversial is clearly an understatement. Gross violation of human rights is what defines mineral extraction in the DRC – the atrocities committed in the DRC because of minerals are absolutely inhumane. DRC has been a country mired in an acrimonious history of conflict dating back to the colonial era. Independence from Belgium only exacerbated the siphoning of resources from the country as imperial powers acted in collaboration with their puppets to rip the country apart. Multinational firms have built their riches off mineral resources in the DRC, and the situation is still ugly. Rebel militias also want a piece of the coveted cake, alongside the military and the country’s politicians. All this happens while the locals have nothing to show for the abundance of such resources except poverty and death.
Artisanal miners extract the ore by hand in unsafe mines scattered across the eastern terrains of the DRC. Although official numbers of people who die in mines are hard to come by, it is a widely known fact that a high number of coltan mines regularly collapse, with miners buried inside and being eternally forgotten. A 16-year-old miner once revealed to Al Jazeera, “Sometimes the mountain caves in. The miners are buried forever and people forget about them.”
The mines are more precarious during the rainy seasons because the damp earth can easily fall apart leaving miners exposed to carbonic gas or crushed inside underground caverns. And sometimes, the miners come across the skeletons of their fellow labourers who would have met such an unfortunate but commonplace demise. The death of miners is not an exception but rather a norm. All for multinationals and politicians to make obscene profits.
The extraction of coltan has been lambasted for making thousands of children forfeit their pursuit of education for a life in the mines. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that exposure to coltan can cause long-term health complications particularly for children employed to work in such mines. Approximately 30% of children leave school to earn their livelihoods in coltan mines. The futures of these children are being robbed on a rampant scale and nothing is done to curtail this malaise.
The greater majority of these artisanal miners are subjected to unsafe working conditions, where they work without any form of safety equipment and the remuneration is terribly and criminally abysmal. The miners have nothing to show for their work. They are only compensated in order to continue working (a reality that continually vindicates Marx’s and Engels’ ideologies). Coltan mining has caused significant environmental damage as water sources in the vicinity of the mines are contaminated by the toxins from the minerals, infecting those with zero contact to the mines.
Militias consider coltan to be a critical source for their revenues. Conflict minerals have always been a major source of financing rebels for decades-long conflicts that include the Second Congolese War (part of the reasons for this war was due to the influx of Rwandese refugees fleeing the Rwandan Genocide in 1994). Coltan is definitely not the only factor driving the unending conflicts in Congo, but it has become a huge component of fueling the financial machines of rebel militias.
A Tutsi rebel group called the Congress for the Defence of the People, involved in 2008 North Kivu war banks on coltan to finance its operations. These militias fight regularly for the illegitimate control of coltan mines, resulting in several civilians dying and losing their property. Both the militias and the Congolese army regularly extorts coltan miners and peace becomes a distant reality.
In a country that has on several occasions been labelled a “failed state,” opportunities are scarce and as such labour for the blood mineral remains plentiful. Some of technological behemoths such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, among others used batteries made with coltan directly sourced from the DRC.
The rise of digital technology has been a curse on the Congolese people. Whether you like it or not, the devices you use and love are used from blood minerals. That alone should teach us to fend off the impulses of narcissistic consumerism and hedonism dictated to us by the global order of neoliberalism.