Coltan: Michael Nest – Book Review – by Stephen Williams (African Business – September 10, 2012)

Just one of many resources that the DR Congo has in abundance, coltan, has received an unprecedented amount of attention from Western-based NGOs. They accuse the world’s technology corporations of fuelling the bloody conflict in the eastern Congo region where this metal is found. More accurately termed columbite-tantalite, but universally known by its abbreviation ‘coltan’, author Michael Nest explodes many of the myths that have grown around this controversial metal.

Like any good researcher, Nest takes the time to crosscheck and corroborate the basic facts and figures. One of the first ‘facts’ that he debunks is the commonly cited figure of 80% as the DR Congo’s share of the world’s reserves, or even the world’s production of coltan.

The earliest article he could find that gave this figure was a story from Agence France-Presse that quoted the 80% as Africa’s total, which was then repeated in March and April 2001 respectively by the UK’s Guardian newspaper and New Scientist magazine. It was the BBC News website, in the same year, that first attributed the 80% tag to DR Congo itself.

Nest tells us that there is no shortage of coltan, and it is, in fact, found in many countries around the world. The author’s own research suggests an “informed estimate” that Central Africa has about 9% of the world’s total and the DR Congo has about 7-8% of global reserves. Nest also believes that for much of the 2000s, the DR Congo may have produced around 20% of the world’s total, but historically the largest producer has been Australia. However, there is evidence of parallel exports, such as occur from DR Congo through Rwanda and even Zimbabwe – while production also began in Mozambique in 2005 and Ethiopia increased production six-fold over the decade.

Booms and troughs

Demand has steadily grown since the end of WWII, but it continues to be cyclical with peaks, such as the 2000 boom, and troughs, such as occurred in 2001. This is a similar price behaviour to other metals. Coltan is not simply used in mobile phones and other electronic devices, although these probably account for nearly 80% of production, but it has other industrial applications as diverse as the aerospace, automotive, energy generation and medical devices sectors.

This is because the tantalite alloys such as coltan are strong and have a resistance to cracking under high temperatures and can also cope with rapid cooling. Also resistant to corrosion, they are used for orthopaedic implants and heart pacemakers. During the Cold War years, the US Defence Logistics Agency stockpiled this and other strategic metals. Nest tells us that in discussing the coltan business with a former trader in the Congo, he was told that it was only “in about 2000 that we [Congolese] started to hear about coltan – it was not known before that”. This was because it was extracted as a by-product in processing plants and, as Nest explains, “Ordinary Congolese had neither the access nor the specialised education to know that what was ostensibly tin mining also produced significant quantities of an obscure mineral.”

And yet, as Nest later observes, coltan mining offers relatively easy entry and participation by armed gangs as artisanal production can be controlled through violence. “By contrast,” he adds, “capital-intensive industrial production would screech to a halt if mine managers used violence against labour.” But he also questions to what extent coltan can be singled out as a cause of violence and source of profits for armed groups.

His conclusions are somewhat surprising. He avers that fighting in the DR Congo is by no means the result of just one issue, and the coltan industry is no more (nor no less) culpable than any other informal resource extraction in the perpetuation of conflict. Other issues leading to violence might include ethnicity and nationality disputes, and arguments over land rights.

It would appear that conflict in eastern Congo is a many-headed hydra, and coltan represents just one of the root causes of it. In fact, Nest offers a summary of five waves of major periods of fighting over the last 40 years in the eastern Congo – and their underlying causes, which have little to do with coltan although the metal might have been a source of funding, just as gold, tin and other diamonds were.

For the rest of this article, please go to the African Business website: