Discussion in 'OldSoul' started by oldsoul, May 27, 2006.
Coltan, cellphones, videogames: The Connections Sunday Noon ET CHAT
no coltan? no capacitors, no electronics!
coltan is an ingredient used in the making of capacitors. capacitors are sort of like batteries, in that they "hold a charge". (well, to be more precise: current coming out of the wall is AC (alternating current), which "alternates" between positive and negative. most of the ciruits used in digital electronics use DC (direct current), which is either always positive or always negative. with a capacitor in the circuit, during the positive half of the cycle, that capacitor is storing juice; during the negative half, it is just waiting. on the "other side" of the capacitor, current is being drawn off in a steady flow of either negative or positive. in this way is the ac "conditioned" into dc.)
if one were to look at most any circuit board, those little (and some not so little, as in power supplies) barrel shaped objects are capacitors. they are useful for "conditioning" electrical current. they are used all over the place! as mentioned, one place is in power supplies!
i ran across an article at the nytimes a bunch of years ago. it kinda got to me a little bit: while pointing out that some of the mining was happening in a national park; the conditions that miners were living under; and the pay, the article seemed to be pointing out how one woman was so exploiting the workers. sure seemed to me that the focus was more on this woman than the nature of the mining, the exploitation (one just knows that those folks aren't getting anywhere near "market wages" for their work!) of the people and the landscape, or how much money was flowing back into the region from the sale of the coltan.
as i am not sure if this article is still archived at the nytimes, i'll toss up my copy.
A Black Mud From Africa
AUG 12, 2001
A Black Mud From Africa Helps Power the New Economy
By BLAINE HARDEN
Before you make another call on that cell phone, take a moment, close your eyes and reflect on all you've done for
Mama Doudou, queen of the rain-forest whores.
Thanks to dollars that you and millions like you have spent on cell phones and Sony PlayStations, Mama Doudou had a
knockout spring season in a mining camp called Kuwait, deep in central Africa. Kuwait -- a name suggesting big money
from below ground -- was one of 20 illegal mines hacked in the past year out of the Okapi Faunal Reserve, a protected
area in the Ituri rain forest of eastern Congo. The reserve is named after a reclusive, big-eared relative of the
giraffe that is found only in Congo. Along with about 4,000 okapi, the reserve is home to a rich assemblage of
monkeys (13 species), an estimated 10,000 forest elephants and about the same number of Mbuti people, often called
pygmies, who live by hunting, gathering and trading.
Mama Doudou, though, didn't mess with wildlife or pygmies. She sold overpriced bread in the mining camp and
negotiated terms of endearment among 300 miners and 37 prostitutes. For a miner to secure the affections of a
prostitute, he had to bring Mama Doudou some of the precious ore he was digging up in the reserve: a gritty,
superheavy mud called coltan.
Coltan is abundant and relatively easy to find in eastern Congo. All a miner has to do is chop down great swaths of
the forest, gouge S.U.V.-size holes in streambeds with pick and shovel and spend days up to his crotch in muck while
sloshing water around in a plastic washtub until coltan settles to the bottom. (Coltan is three times heavier than
iron, slightly lighter than gold.) If he is strong and relentless and the digging is good, a miner can produce a
kilogram a day. Earlier this year, that was worth $80 -- a remarkable bounty in a region where most people live on 20
cents a day.
Coltan is the muck-caked counterpoint to the brainier-than-thou, environmentally friendly image of the high-tech
economy. The wireless world would grind to a halt without it. Coltan, once it is refined in American and European
factories, becomes tantalum, a metallic element that is a superb conductor of electricity, highly resistant to heat.
Tantalum powder is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of capacitors, the electronic components that control the
flow of current inside miniature circuit boards. Capacitors made of tantalum can be found inside almost every laptop,
pager, personal digital assistant and cell phone.
Mama Doudou, who is 45, is formally known as Doudou Wangonda, but she is called Mama because in the rain forest she
is widely respected. She told me she doesn't understand what ''rich white people'' do with coltan. But she's
exceptionally well versed in how much they pay for it. Late last year, exploding demand for tantalum powder created a
temporary worldwide shortage, which contributed to Sony's difficulties in getting its new PlayStation 2 into American
stores, as well as to a tenfold price increase on the world tantalum market. Mama Doudou abandoned her position as a
traditional chief and joined thousands of people who walked into the Ituri forest hoping to get rich quick.
When the price of coltan was soaring, Mama Doudou made an absolute killing. First, she sold bread to miners at a
scandalous price. She made as much as $800 worth of coltan for every $50 in cash that she spent on baking supplies.
Then she used what she called her ''natural leadership abilities'' to win election as president of the camp
prostitutes, most of whom were poorly educated, town-bred women in their late teens. As president, Mama Doudou
collected -- and turned over to the owner of the mine -- a variety of fees and fines related to the mating habits of
miners and their women.
The normal arrangement in the camp was for a miner, after forking over a kilo of coltan to Mama Doudou, to pair off
with one woman for the duration of their respective stays in the forest. The miner's ''temporary wife'' would cook
his food, haul his water and share his bed in a shack made of sticks and leaves. In return, he would give her enough
coltan to keep her in cosmetics, clothes and beer. If a miner decided that he wanted a prettier young woman to haul
his water, he had to pay Mama Doudou another kilo of coltan.
''This is called the infringement fee,'' she explained.
Likewise, if a woman decided, as many did, to dump one miner in favor of another who happened to be a better producer
of coltan, then she, too, had to pay Mama Doudou a kilo of coltan.
''This also is called the infringement fee,'' she said.
Frequent swapping of ''temporary wives'' in an equatorial forest where hygiene was problematic and condoms all but
nonexistent led to an explosion of gonorrhea.
''There was too much sofisi,'' Mama Doudou said, using the Swahili word for the disease. Soon half the people in
Kuwait had it. Antibiotics that could knock down gonorrhea were on sale in the camp for a tomato tin of coltan (worth
about $27). They sold exceptionally well.
Mama Doudou's business ventures were part of a squalid encounter between the global high-tech economy and one of the
world's most thoroughly ruined countries.
Congo -- always too well endowed with natural resources and too weakly governed for its own good -- is a nation in
name only. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the late stages of a political malady that students of modern
Africa call ''failed state syndrome.'' Roads, schools and medical clinics barely exist. Malnutrition and poverty have
brought back diseases, like sleeping sickness, that had been under control. The World Health Organization recently
estimated that the monthly toll of ''avoidable deaths'' in Congo was 72,800.
The eastern half of the country, with about 20 million residents, has no real government and no laws except the
ever-changing rules imposed by invading armies from Rwanda and Uganda and roving bands of well-armed predators.
A scalding report that was presented this spring to the United Nations Security Council said that coltan perpetuates
Congo's civil war. The report, based on a six-month investigation by an expert panel, said the war ''has become
mainly about access, control and trade'' of minerals, the most important being coltan. The one thing that unites the
warring parties, according to the report, is a keen interest in making money off coltan.
''Because of its lucrative nature,'' the report said, the war ''has created a 'win-win' situation for all
belligerents. Adversaries and enemies are at times partners in business, get weapons from the same dealers and use
the same intermediaries. Business has superseded security concerns.''
Environmental groups have added emotional fuel to the accusations in the U.N. report by cataloging the devastation
that the coltan trade has brought to Congo's wildlife. About 10,000 miners and traders have overrun Kahuzi-Biega
National Park, according to a report released in May by a coalition of environmental groups. Before the civil war,
the park was home to about 8,000 eastern lowland gorillas. That number may have since been reduced to fewer than
1,000, the report estimated, because miners and others in the forest are far from food supplies and must rely on bush
meat. Apes are killed for food or killed in traps set for other animals. If something is not done to stop mining and
poaching, the report said that the eastern lowland gorilla ''will become the first great ape to be driven to
extinction -- a victim of war, human greed and high technology.''
While coltan extraction has taken advantage of Congo's ruin, it did not cause it. That has taken more than 110 years
of misrule, during which Congo has attracted a string of shady suitors.
The most malign of the courtships began in the late 19th century, when agents of King Leopold II of the Belgians
started stripping central Africa of ivory and rubber. To enforce production quotas on the locals, Leopold's agents
chopped off their hands, noses and ears. Before the king was forced to trade away the hugely profitable colony in
1908, an estimated five million to eight million Congolese were killed.
In the 1960's, the Americans waded in. To fight Communism and secure access to cobalt and copper, the Central
Intelligence Agency helped bring about the assassination of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister,
Patrice Lumumba. That was followed by three decades of White House coddling of his successor, Mobutu Sese Seku,
Africa's most famous billionaire dictator, who set a poisoned table for the chaos that followed his eventual
overthrow in 1997.
Since then, Congo has been locked in a sprawling and numbingly complicated civil war that by some estimates has
become the deadliest conflict in the history of independent Africa. The war has caused the deaths of 2.5 million
people over the past two and a half years in eastern Congo alone, according to a recent report by the International
Rescue Committee, a New York-based aid agency, which described the emergency in Congo as ''perhaps worse than any to
unfold in Africa in recent decades.''
The Coltan story seemed clear when I flew to Congo early this summer. Globalization was causing havoc in a desperate
country. For the sake of our electronic toys, guerrillas were getting rich, gorillas were getting slaughtered and the
local people were getting paid next to nothing to ruin their country's environment. Traveling inside Congo, however,
I found clarity on the question of coltan to be as scarce as paved roads, functioning schools or sober soldiers.
What muddied up the story, first of all, was the curiously egalitarian quality of coltan mining. Just about anyone
with a shovel and a strong back can dig it up. It's easier to find and more plentiful than diamonds, which have
created their own blood frenzy in Africa. It has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into an economy that had
virtually ceased to function. True, much of that money has been creamed off by warlords and profiteers, and very
little of it has been redistributed in social services. Some, though, has filtered down to miners, middlemen and
To discover the importance of coltan's trickle-down effect (and to meet Mama Doudou), I first had to take a
spine-mashing, 13-hour ride on the back of a Yamaha trail bike over a mud track that used to be the main east-west
highway across northern Congo.
The road I traveled is all but impassable to motorized vehicles, excepting a trail bike driven by someone who knows
how to negotiate mammoth mudholes, many of which are deeper and longer than a New York City garbage truck, as well as
when to bribe drunken rogue soldiers and when to run from them.
Riding through the reserve, I was menaced by a Congolese soldier, a member of the Front for the Liberation of Congo,
a poorly disciplined rebel group supported by the Ugandan Army. He demanded my boots, explaining that he didn't have
boots. He demanded money, explaining that he had none. He pointed his AK-47 at my stomach. Gunning the Yamaha, my
driver sped away before the soldier, who was stumble-down drunk, could react. This encounter, my driver later
explained, was normal.
In Epulu, a village that is the administrative center of the Okapi reserve, I spent an afternoon with a coltan miner
named Munako Bangazuna, a quiet, wary man who stood only 4 feet 6 inches tall. Early this year, Bangazuna enjoyed
what he called ''my richest period.'' In a mine inside the Okapi reserve, he dug about a kilo of coltan a day, he
said. Working seven days a week, he made more than $2,000 a month for two months in a row -- a fortune in the forest.
He is 26 and married with children. Mining allowed him to provide his family with food and consumer goods he never
dreamed he'd be able to afford. Besides food, he bought a bicycle, a radio, a foam mattress, cooking pots, dishes and
clothes for himself, his wife and his kids.
Bangazuna does not claim to have spent his money wisely. The mining camp where he lived was called Boma Libala, a
phrase that means ''kill the marriage.'' It was the largest and, by reputation, nastiest mining camp in the reserve,
with 3,000 miners and several hundred prostitutes.
''I lost a lot of my money on prostitution and also on Primus,'' said Bangazuna, referring to a brand of Congolese
beer. His wife cooked for him in Boma Libala, he said, during the time he was drinking lots of beer and spending most
of his money on prostitutes. ''I was lucky,'' he said. ''She did not divorce me.''
Bangazuna was hardly alone in his bad behavior. One coltan moment that particularly nauseates authorities occurred
this spring in Epulu, when a drunken miner and a seminaked prostitute fornicated in broad daylight on the lawn of the
primary school, in front of village children.
Like several miners I interviewed in the reserve, a territory controlled by the Ugandan military and its rebel
allies, Bangazuna was compelled to give up a slice of his coltan diggings to an extortion racket run by Ugandan
''In the morning, when you get up, the Ugandans hand you a pack of cigarettes, and they give you two bottles of
beer,'' said Bangazuna, explaining his daily routine. ''In the evening, when you finish digging, you have to pay them
back with coltan. It was very expensive. One bottle of beer cost me two spoons of coltan'' -- about $8 -- and
cigarettes were one spoon. If you refuse to pay or if you don't have coltan, they beat you and threaten to shoot
When I talked to Bangazuna, he was broke. He had spent all the money he'd earned digging coltan. He also happened to
be under arrest. Game wardens (whose expenses are paid partly by donations from several American zoos) had caught him
digging coltan in the reserve after he'd been warned not to do so.
When the wardens let him go, Bangazuna confided, he planned to dig more coltan.
This spring, the price of coltan crashed, falling from $80 a kilo in March to $8 in June. As cell phone sales slumped
and the Nasdaq shrank, demand for coltan from companies like Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola fell precipitously.
Suddenly, a Congolese coltan miner had to dig coltan all day simply to afford to eat in a mining camp, and he had to
dig for three or four days to find enough coltan to pay for the drugs that would clear up a case of sofisi.
At the Kuwait mine, everything came unglued. The prostitutes, then the merchants, then the miners and, finally, Mama
Doudou herself abandoned the mine and walked out of the rain forest.
A few days before game wardens burned it to the ground, I visited another mine in the Okapi reserve. It was more
accessible than Kuwait and, unlike the infamous but shut-down Boma Libala camp, where Bangazuna had squandered so
much of his money, it still had a few working miners.
To get to Tuko-Tu camp, I walked for about two hours on a well-trod trail beneath a high canopy of trees. They
shrouded the rain forest in permanent shadow. It rained hard as I walked, and the dark, soggy forest was threaded
with filigrees of mist.
For all its gloom, the forest was about as primeval as a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Every half hour or so,
two or three giggly women, seemingly dressed for a party in glistening lipstick and gaudy dresses, smelling of strong
perfume, would materialize out of the dank greenery. Their bare feet were caked with mud; they carried their shoes.
They were prostitutes from Tuko-Tu, and they were walking out to buy bread and beer in a village on the main road.
On both sides of the footpath, a towering mainstay of the forest was dying for the sake of coltan. The eko, one of
three giant trees that form the rain forest's canopy, has a durable, waterproof bark. Miners strip off a long girdle
of the bark to make a trough into which they shovel coltan-bearing mud, which is then flushed with water. Stripping
bark has killed thousands of eko trees in the reserve, which greatly upsets the local pygmies. They rely on the tree,
whose flowers attract bees, as depots for gathering honey.
The mining camp squatted in a clearing hacked out of the forest. It was a jumble of stick huts with roofs made from
forest leaves. Most of the huts were empty. The camp was down to 57 residents, from a high of 320 when coltan was at
$80 a kilo. Out in front of the huts, a few toddlers stood stoically in the mud as bored young mothers picked lice
from their hair. Ugandan soldiers used to come here, I was told, to force miners to buy beer and cigarettes. But they
had stopped coming in May, when the price of coltan began to fizzle. There were still miners, of course, but they
were out digging, deeper in the forest.
So I walked on, following a streambed. After about an hour and a half of walking, the streambed suddenly disappeared.
A bombing range took its place -- or what looked like a bombing range. Craters, hundreds of them, many 10 feet deep,
all of them partly filled with muck, marched on for miles through the forest -- until they ended in a cluster of
about 25 miners. With shovels, picks and plastic wash tubs, they were creating more craters in the streambed.
Jean Pierre Asikima, 43, was among them. He gave up digging gold two months earlier, he said, to come into the forest
in search of coltan. But the digging was poor, the price was low and he said he was losing weight in the forest.
''I have come too late, and soon I will quit,'' he said, standing in a crater he had dug, waist-deep in muddy water
that was the color of chicken gravy.
Still, Asikima worked with a fury. With mud and gravel from his crater, he built a seven-foot-high mound. Then he
shoveled and scraped the mud into an eko-bark trough, while another miner, a 16-year-old who said his name was Dragon
went to work with a blue plastic washtub, pouring several hundred tubs full of water through the makeshift sluice.
After about an hour, a glittering black stain had gathered at the foot of the trough. It was an ounce or so of
coltan, the fruit of five hours of digging and washing. Asikima said it was not enough to buy a tin of rice for
dinner. As he began to dig another crater, I asked him about his life in the forest. He said he despised it.
''If I had another job,'' he said, ''I would not come here. But there are no other jobs. When this mine closes, I
will go and find another one.''
He is not alone. Although the price has crashed, many coltan-bearing regions of eastern Congo remain thick with
miners, commerçants and prostitutes. In a country with a 20-cents-a-day living standard, the chance of earning a few
dollars from coltan is still a powerful enough reason to live in the bush and shovel muck, sell bread and risk
To halt war profiteering and the destruction of wildlife, the report to the U.N. Security Council called for an
embargo on the export of coltan and other natural resources from Uganda and Rwanda.
Although the embargo has yet to be imposed by the Security Council, European and American companies that profit from
the coltan trade have been scurrying to avoid bad publicity. Pictures of dead gorillas and of environmental ruin in
Congo's national parks have been particularly effective in triggering alarm among companies that pride themselves on
their environmental images.
Sabena, the Belgian airline named in the report for hauling Congolese coltan to Europe, announced in June that it
will no longer carry the ore. Nokia and Motorola are among several major mobile-phone makers that have publicly
demanded that their suppliers stop using ore mined illegally in Congo. And so it has gone down the supply chain. The
world's largest maker of tantalum capacitors, Kemet, in Greenville, S.C., has asked its suppliers to certify that ore
does not come from Congo or bordering countries, including Uganda and Rwanda. Cabot Corporation, a Boston-based
company that is the world's second-largest processor of tantalum powder, announced this spring that it ''deplores all
unlawful and immoral activities'' connected with coltan mined in Congo and declared that it will not buy any ore from
that part of the world.
The high moral ground that companies have been quick to stake out has the added attraction of being profit-neutral,
at least for the moment. The tantalum market is glutted because of declining demand in the slumping technology
sector. As important, there has been a sharp increase in production by a giant Australian mining company, called Sons
of Gwalia, which now produces half the world's supply.
In the immediate future, it looks as though less and less of the world's tantalum will come from Congo's coltan
mines. And as the U.N. sees it, this will be a very good thing. Its report concluded, ''The only loser in this huge
business venture is the Congolese people.''
But inside what's left of Congo, a wide array of influential people (who are not combatants in the war and are not
getting rich from coltan) make a persuasive case that these demands are naive and could well produce disastrous
consequences. They argue that in a collapsed state where the likelihood of constructive Western intervention is next
to nil, there simply are no easy fixes.
''For local people who are trying to make a bit of money out of coltan, how can an embargo possibly help?'' asked
Aloys Tegera, who directs the Pole Institute, a nongovernmental social-research institute in Goma, in eastern Congo.
Tegera is well aware of coltan's destructive side: he is the lead author of a study on the severe social impact of
coltan mining, which describes how teachers have been lured to the mines from the country's few functioning
classrooms and explains why teenage girls have turned to prostitution.
''Coltan fuels the war; nobody can deny that,'' said Tegera. ''That is why we maybe will never get peace. But
civilians, especially those who are organized, also are getting some money from this.''
He and many others find it more than slightly insulting that in a country where millions are hungry and coltan is
helping to feed some of them, a de facto embargo is gathering steam among high-tech companies apparently worried less
about human beings than about the public-relations downside of dead gorillas. And, like many other Congolese, he
declines to become morally riled up about foreign domination.
''Of course, the Rwandans are pillaging us,'' he said. ''But they are not the first to do it and they are no worse
than the others. King Leopold did it. The Belgians did it. Mobutu and the Americans did it. The most sorrowful thing
I have to live with is that we are incapable of coming up with an elite that can run things with Congolese interests
Terese Hart, an American botanist who helped create the Okapi Faunal Reserve and has worked there since the early
1980's, supports neither an embargo on coltan nor a quick pullout of Ugandan forces from northeast Congo.
''The world wants to intervene from a distance and pull the strings on the puppet,'' said Hart, who works for the
Wildlife Conservation Society. ''The problem is that the strings are not connected to anything. When outsiders
struggle to find solutions for Congo, they often assume there is some kind of government. There is no government.
There is nothing.''
As for coltan mining, Hart said it is silly for the outside world to try to squeeze one of the few ways for poor
people to make a bit of money.
''Outside the reserve, I think that coltan mining is the lesser evil of the types of exploitation that occur when
there is no government,'' Hart said. ''I prefer mining to logging. Cutting timber in the rain forest is part of an
irreversible ecological process. I don't think coltan mining does as much permanent damage. The miner will not get
much, but at least he will continue to live.''
Among the Congolese I spoke to about coltan, the consensus was that they could not risk the simple solutions that
outsiders had prescribed. Struggling to survive in a failed state, they saw no straightforward answers, no moral high
ground. For them, the only thing worse than mining coltan is not mining it.
What progress there is in eastern Congo tends to be slow, small-scale and subject to sudden reversal.
The World Health Organization has succeeded in working with rebel groups to vaccinate most children for polio, but it
says 7 of 10 children have not received any other vaccines in the past decade. Western donors are distributing some
medicines, seeds and tools, but three-quarters of the population still has no access to basic health care.
When progress is being made, it often involves the mixed blessing of coltan. In eastern Congo, two mining
entrepreneurs, Edouard Mwangachuchu, a Congolese Tutsi, and his American partner, Robert Sussman, a physician from
Baltimore, are struggling to build a legitimate business in an illegitimate state.
They run a company that even their competitors say treats miners fairly. It supplies shovels and picks to about a
thousand men who operate as independent contractors in mines located far from national parks, protected forests and
The land belongs to Mwangachuchu, whose herds were slaughtered in 1995, as the Mobutu era was sputtering to an end.
Desperate to shore up popular support, Mobutu encouraged Congolese in the east to attack the ethnic Tutsi minority. A
mob pulled Mwangachuchu, then a financial adviser to the provincial government in Goma, out of his Suzuki jeep on his
way to work. They choked him with his necktie, ripped off his clothes and dumped him at the Rwandan border. Crowds
later stoned and shot at his house.
Mwangachuchu, his wife and their six children were granted political asylum in the United States in 1996, and they
rented a house in Laurel, Md. Two years later, homesick and bored with his job at a Carvel ice-cream plant,
Mwangachuchu returned home for a visit.
Civil war was raging. His cattle farm had been destroyed, his herds gone, his buildings burned. But he still owned
the land, which he had long known was rich in coltan. In 1999, a year after his first trip home, he heard that there
was money to be made mining it. All he needed was a partner, someone with a bit of money.
Robert Sussman, 55, sold his medical practice in Baltimore in the early 1990's. Comfortably well off, he began a
second career as a mining-camp doctor in remote countries, including Myanmar and Congo. Intrigued by mining, he began
thinking of going into the business himself. He met Mwangachuchu in a Goma hotel in 1998, and they became partners
the following year, as the price of coltan began to go up.
Sussman and Mwangachuchu say they are investing in Congo for the long term. They believe they can operate profitably
despite the recent slump in coltan prices and despite the fact that their mines are still periodically fought over by
roving bands of armed men. The partners say they have laid the foundation for a solid business.
''We are proud of what we are doing in Congo,'' Sussman told me. ''We want the world to understand that if it's done
right, coltan can be good for this country.''
Sussman and Mwangachuchu, of course, are also in it for the money. High coltan prices last year gave them an
unexpected windfall. Sussman said they sold 22 metric tons of coltan, which earned them about $7.5 million -- before
they paid their many bills.
Since then, they have bought about 25 more tons of coltan from miners in the field -- ore that they have not been
able to sell.
Last year, Sussman and Mwangachuchu shipped their ore to Europe on Sabena airlines. That airline now refuses their
business, and they are scrambling to find another shipper. They fear that a corporate embargo could cripple their
business and idle miners who have come to depend on them.
''We don't understand why they are doing this,'' Mwangachuchu told me. ''The Congolese have a right to make business
in their own country.''
Blaine Harden is a national correspondent for The Times. His last article for the magazine was about a doctor who
died fighting the ebola virus.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company |
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