Coltan a minefield in the Congo – by Jennifer Wells (Toronto Star – July 3, 2011)

Jennifer Wells is a feature writer with the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. No stranger to the mining industry, Ms. Wells won the 1999 National Business Book Award for Fever: The Dark Mystery of the Bre-X Gold Rush as well as covering many other major mining stories.

“Don’t just shock us. Make us understand.” — Jason Stearns, Congo watcher

So you want to see the minerals!” Edouard Mwangachuchu, senator, Democratic Republic of the Congo, quickly advances toward a cargo trailer situated high on a verdant emerald hilltop in Masisi Territory. It is a glorious day.

Masisi, in the Congolese province of North Kivu, is lush and agriculturally rich, rising in terraced steps more visually fitting the postcard pastures of today’s Rwanda, or possibly the rice plateaus of Vietnam, than the Congo, which often — too often — seems a desiccated and wretched place.

In Masisi the sweet peas are white, the lupines are purple, and the senator, in his straw hat and pink golf shirt, looks the part of the weekend farmer, which he is, crowing that he produces the finest Gouda cheese in all the Congo. The senator is also a mine operator of a modestly mechanized operation, and on this day he is in an expansive mood.

The lock on the cargo trailer is surprisingly slight, given the riches stored inside.

The air in the trailer is thick and still. Humped at the back are sacks of minerals — not tin, not gold, but coltan. One of the workers nimbly unties an ore bag and retrieves a handful of the heavy black mineral, which settles into his palm not as rough nuggets, but as smooth and inky rocks amid damp granules of sand.

It’s a curiosity. Modern society is so deeply immersed in digital culture — game consoles, DVD players, cellphones — yet the name “coltan” elicits quizzical looks. The mineral is composed of two elements, columbite and tantalite, and you can thank the Belgians, apparently, for this neologism that hadn’t, until the crisis in the Congo, gained common currency.

It is the latter metal, tantalite — ductile, corrosion-resistant, heat-resistant — that has trumped aluminum in the manufacture of such critical electronic components as capacitors, which store a device’s electronic charge.

Top-grade tantalum powders have played an essential role in creating ever smaller capacitors, which in turn allow for smaller electronics, a design advance that helps explain why today’s cellphones are a fraction of the size of the “mobile” hardware hoisted by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street.

Tantalite is one of the “Ts” in the group of “3TG conflict minerals” named in recent American legislation, along with tin, tungsten and gold. The Dodd-Frank act, which came into effect three months ago, is designed to sever the connection between the illicit exploitation of minerals by armed groups in the eastern Congo, the trafficking of arms and sexual and gender-based violence.

To that end, the extraction and export of the 3TGs has fallen under the due diligence provisions of section 1502 of the act. The act compels the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to put into effect regulations requiring companies to disclose minerals sourced from the DRC or an adjoining country, and the measures taken to oversee the chain of custody of those minerals. By contrast, Canada’s approach to these conflict minerals — and, more broadly, corporate social responsibility — has been dispiritingly flaccid. NDP MP Paul Dewar says he will be pushing the issue with a retabling of his private member’s bill on conflict minerals in September. Maybe, he thinks, something will happen then.

The rich vista of Masisi demands a more romantic set-up than that. Tantalum. From Tantalus, the son of Zeus, he who robbed the gods of their ambrosia. How Tantalus was made to suffer for his sins! Water to slake his thirst flowed teasingly close, then ebbed away too quickly. Luscious fruit hung, pendulous and full, before it swayed just out of reach.

The surrounding highlands beckon. Today they are adorned with beans and cassava and grazing lands for cows. Might they be fat with the rich, black mineral too?

The senator is a man of large appetites — “Where are the strawberries?” he suddenly asks one of his employees — and wounded sensibilities. “We come from trouble,” he affirms, speaking to the long-term “instability” in the eastern Congo.

Now there’s a term that needs pumping up. The Congo, and especially the eastern provinces, has suffered horrific tragedies. Deaths in the millions. The systematic rape of women. Forced labour, child labour, child soldiers. The economy collapsed long ago. The country is an open wound.

Still, the senator argues that the extraterritorial reach of Dodd-Frank has resulted in the shunning of minerals from the region before systems have been put in place to certify them as conflict-free. The result has been to strip the region of trade in the interim, a devastating outcome for the creuseurs, or artisanal miners. “It’s not the time to ban us,” the senator pleads. “It’s the time to help us.”

The senator declines to descend the steep path to the excavation site below. Thomas Tchomba is the senator’s head geologist, and he’s happy to scramble down the hillside. The site’s diggers have been temporarily redeployed to the task of benching a cliff recently hit by a mudslide that has unleashed an avalanche of loamy, chocolate-brown soil. At midday the workers appear to deploy little energy toward this effort. A small crew of handymen toils at repairing a sluice box. There is no water being rushed through the sluice, no minerals being extracted.

“There are thousands of tonnes of coltan,” says Tchomba, his eyes sweeping the senator’s mining concessions, though, truly, no one knows the full potential of the site.

In September, Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, issued an edict prohibiting the extraction of minerals from North and South Kivu and the adjacent province of Maniema. “Before the ban we were retrieving up to five or six tonnes a month,” Tchomba laments. The ban was lifted in March. “Now we have export problems.”

The electronics industry has turned its back on the Congo.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website:–coltan-a-minefield-in-the-congo