strategic minerals essential to the electronics and military industries. The criminal
regimes in Uganda and Rwanda sponsor proxy militias whose violence facilitates the
smuggling of these minerals through the two African nations. It is a shame
BY GIUNTA CARRIE
The Congolese war, which has killed over six million people since 1996, is the deadliest
conflict in the world since the Second World War. If you add the number of deaths in
Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda over the same period, it would still not
equal the millions who have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Part of a solution to this is for western governments to hold Rwanda and Uganda
accountable for funding proxy armies in the DRC. The retreat of M23 rebels from the
Eastern DRC in recent days shows international pressure to stop Rwanda from supporting
the rebels is working. The DRC insurgency is far from over, as other rebel groups are
still to be defeated. There is a long way to go before stabilization in the region will be
Considering that violence and brutality in the DRC is proportionate to the demand for the
eastern regions of the country’s rich mineral deposits, it is less a matter of who is funding
and supporting one army or another. The question is, rather, what is creating a heightened
demand for conflict minerals?
The high-grade metal tantalum, processed from the precious mineral coltan, makes it
possible to build smaller and smaller electronic gadgets like smart phones and tablets. It
is also essential in powering a new trend of military applications such as drones. A new
demand for tantalum has boosted coltan mining, trading and smuggling. As stockpiles run
low, it is most likely a tantalum shortage could intensify violence again, which directly
and indirectly affects people in the mining areas of the eastern DRC.
This province is the richest source of coltan in the world, with an estimated eighty
percent of the world’s coltan reserves. Competition for minerals has a direct effect on
the relentless violence in the region. Women and young girls have been among visible
victims of the conflict and hundreds of thousands of them have been raped by opposing
warring factions as a weapon of war.
A country the size of Western Europe, the DRC holds an estimated $24 trillion in mineral
reserves, including gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, tin, tungsten, zinc, manganese,
magnesium, uranium, niobium, gold, diamonds and silver. Armed groups vie for control
of mineral mines and the routes for mineral transportation. Minerals are channeled
through neighbouring countries, Rwanda and Uganda by violent rebel groups and then
bought by multinational companies. The Washington Post reports Congolese minerals are
smuggled into Rwanda to the tune of $6 million a day.
Tantalum plays a vital role in the growing coltan market. A derivative of coltan, tantalum
is a key component in modern electronics. It is the metal used in capacitors or devices
that store energy.
Tantalum capacitors are not only used in smartphones. They are important for aerospace
and military technologies, which rely on tantalum capacitors for running applications that
reach very high temperatures.
With an extraordinary ability to withstand a broad range of temperatures and to resist
corrosion, tantalum capacitors are a marvel of technology. They can retain a charge for an
extended time and can tolerate operating environments of up to 200 °C.
One of the biggest challenges for defence electronics designers is in managing extremely
high temperatures generated by the high performance processors in the new military
applications. Recent innovations in thermal management have made it possible to operate
under high heat loads using tantalum capacitors.
This extends to smart bombs, on-board navigation in drones, robots and a variety
of weapons systems, such as the capacitors in anti-tank systems. Further advances
in technology have brought the rapid development of fully autonomous weapons or
lethal autonomous robots. In short, if it were not for tantalum’s amazing heat resistant
properties, these systems would otherwise overheat.
At this year’s SPIE Defense Security and Sensing electro-optics conference trade show
was on a new generation of drones that require small, light and low energy consuming
Such advances in military technology increase the need for coltan. The International
Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports: “Coltan’s ability to hold and move
electrical signals and its conductive ability in extreme temperatures, makes it ideal for
smart bomb guidance controls. Security analysts say it is a strategic mineral.”
Tantalum derived from coltan is essential in powering a new trend of military
applications made by the US. Yet, the US has no domestic source of coltan. In order to
sustain a continued flow of coltan, it depends entirely on imports.
The United States’ Defence Logistics Agency (USDLA) maintains reserves of strategic
minerals and rare metals in its National Defence Stockpile (NDS). The NDS was
established in 1939 to reduce the possibility of “a dangerous and costly dependence by
the United States upon foreign sources for supplies of such materials in times of national
Despite this, US tantalum stocks have depleted in recent years. According to Daniel
McGroarty, in a Pentagon report last year about US dependency on minerals, the
Department of Defence recommends stockpiling tantalum and eight other strategic
minerals. If the US were to run out of tantalum, would it be able to continue building its
The consequences of a tantalum shortage would have a calamitous effect on the DRC. A
shortage of coltan ore at the end of 2000 contributed to an overnight price hike from $49
to $275 per pound (454 grams). The moment of the price hike was also a time of great
intensification of violence in the Eastern DRC.
Today the price of tantalum is up again and the rise in price corresponds to the violent
situation on the ground. In June the situation in the DRC became increasingly insecure.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned: “…acts of violence
committed against civilians, including murder and sexual assault, remain at a very
the latest products were unveiled for drones technology. The focus at SPIE
worrying level and regularly cause the displacement of thousands of families.”
Conflict-free campaigns attribute the tantalum rise as a response to the smartphone
and tablet market. These campaigns aim to ensure rebel forces do not control sources
of tantalum to finance armed conflict and that supply chains are transparent. These
initiatives look at supply chains and manufacturing connected to companies like Apple
and Samsung, but there is more to tantalum than the phone and gadgets market.
Conflict-free advocates make the mistake of overlooking the links between minerals and
the weapons manufacturing industry. It is doubtful defence companies will be seeking out
conflict free mineral sources anytime soon. A conflict-free weapon is an oxymoron.
Even less likely is the prospect of the defence sector abiding new federal legislation,
which requires public companies to disclose whether they use conflict minerals from
the DRC. Under the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection
Act, US companies are required to submit a report to the Securities and Exchange
Commission by May 2014 on the sources of the minerals they use.
Campaigns for conflict-free minerals are calling on electronics companies to use fair
trade, conflict-free materials in smartphones, laptops and tablets. Their work has been
successful in increasing the number of conflict-free mines in the eastern DRC. What has
not been addressed is the larger role of conflict minerals beyond the realm of consumer
At the current rate, the weapons industry could exceed smartphone and tablet makers in
coltan consumption if it has not already. Extended use of drones in the past decade means
the US needs tantalum because the basic circuitry in drones is built with tantalum from
refined coltan. This connection to weapons manufacturing gives new meaning to the
term ‘blood coltan’.
Blood coltan is not exclusive to central Africa. Significant coltan reserves exist in the
Amazon jungle covering the Venezuelan-Columbian border creating an emergent black
market. Drug lords dominate the Columbian side of the border. This is considered a
conflict zone as coltan is smuggled through the danger area on its way from Venezuela to
Columbia and to Brazil.
In the DRC, mineral mining, trading and smuggling continue to fund the ongoing
conflict. Armed groups include the Congolese national army (FARDC) whose ranks
include many former rebels. The M23, which has given up control of the region, is made
up of former members of the FARDC who mutinied in April 2012. A Global Witness
report last year revealed members of FARDC make millions of dollars through their
control of the mines. Constant struggles between the FARDC and numerous rebel groups
over control of minerals mining and transportation of minerals have a direct effect on the
killing, raping and ongoing violence in the region.
The rush on coltan engenders the violence in the DRC. Spearheading that demand is
tantalum, a key ingredient in new military technologies.
The US obsession with “surgical” remote-controlled warfare, especially drones,
is sharpening the appetite for tantalum. The US has killed thousands in Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia with the ever-increasing drone strikes. Armed drones
are also in operation in Mali, Libya and Niger.
This highlights a worrying connection between two contemporaneous wars – the twelve-
year ‘war on terror’ and the sixteen-year war in the Congo. Joining the two is the demand
for Congolese minerals.
* Giunta Carrie is a part-time lecturer based in London and volunteers with Stop the
War Coalition as a web editor.