If a mine is controlled by armed groups who use mineral profits to purchase weapons — or other supplies or luxuries — the minerals from the mine are sometimes called conflict minerals. Tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold are useful minerals mined in many parts of the world. But sometimes those minerals come from a very conflicted area in Africa, most notably but not exclusively from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Four so-called conflict minerals and their uses are highlighted below.
Tantalum / coltan
- Tantalum capacitors enable energy storage in electronic products
- Tantalum capacitors are used in every laptop, smartphone, camera and video game console you’ve heard of – as well as in aircraft engines and military equipment
- Highly conductive and corrosive-resistant, tantalum is considered virtually “irreplaceable”
- Some alternatives include aluminum, ceramic and passivated nichrome – but none have the industry devotion of tantalum
- Armed groups in regions of the DRC who control mines earn an estimated $8 million per year from sales of coltan (the raw ore where tantalum comes from)
- 12% of all tantalum was mined in the DRC in 2011 (USGS data)
- Tantalum is predominantly mined in areas such as Australia, Brazil, and Canada but the amount mined in the DRC is not insignificant. A spike in tantalum export from the DRC since the tech boom of 2000 is apparent in the chart at bottom of page
The so-called “Africa’s World War” has been ravaging the eastern parts of the DRC for over a decade (map below).
Tin / casserite / coltan
- Tin is found in food packaging, in steel coatings on automobile parts, and in some plastics. Many industries use tin in the form of tin solder, for example, as solder on circuit boards
- Tin is predominantly mined in China, Indonesia, Peru, and Bolivia, as well as in the DRC
- About 3% of the global tin supply of the global gold supply, was mined in the DRC in 2010
- Tin earns armed groups in the DRC an estimated $85 million per year
By conservative estimates, the war and its effects has killed over 5 million people, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.
- Tungsten is used in automobile manufacturing, drill bits and cutting tools, and other industrial manufacturing tools. It is also the primary component of filaments in light bulbs
- From 2006 through 2011, 77% to 87% of tungsten was mined in China
- Less than 1% of all tungsten was mined in the DRC in 2011 (USGS data)
- Yet, tungsten brings armed groups in the DRC about $2 million a year
The idea behind conflict mineral restrictions is no funds = no weapons = less violence and less war.
- Gold is used as currency, by the automotive industry in catalytic convertors, in electronics, medicine, coatings, nanotech, high tech; used in jewelry, fashion, fuel cells, jet engines, space exploration, and almost anywhere you can think of
- Gold is mined in many different countries, including the DRC
- Industry uses about 440 tons of gold per year globally
- Less than 1% of the global gold supply was mined in the DRC in 2010
- Only 23 kilograms of gold were “officially” exported from eastern Congo in the first half of 2012
- It’s estimated that 2 tons to 4 tons of gold was exported through illegal routes in the first half of 2012
- Roughly $30,000 worth of gold can fit in a pocket, and around $700,000 in a briefcase (source: The Enough Project)
Chart: How much tantalum is mined each year?
Information on software for minerals management – and SEC compliance – click here.
Map of Conflict Mineral region (note how green it is, with ample fresh water lakes):
Afterword: Some say it’s not the international community’s place to monitor human rights issues in a distant country. Yet — such a huge event as this WWII-scale reality demands international attention. And don’t be duped into thinking conflict mineral legislation is strictly a humanitarian gesture.
Economic interests are involved. Consider: many say Africa is the new Asia in terms of potential for production, industry and an economic boom. But regional warring drains resources and restrains the region’s growth. This in turn badly affects western nations and corporations who would prefer to invest there rather than Asia – if the political landscape is stable enough to do so.
If the regional warring could simmer down, look out world. In ten years we’ll be talking about Africa before India, Brazil and possibly China.