Who is mining coltan and what does it have to do with you?

black stone

Coltan is an ore used to make capacitors, which are tiny components that store electricity in electronic devices. If you own a cellphone, laptop, game console, or many other pieces of technology, then it’s likely that you have coltan in your home right now. In order to get coltan out of the ground and into our electronics, many people are forced to work in dangerous conditions and their children are often forced to work with them.

mining excavation on a mountain
Photo by Vlad Chețan on Pexels.com

First, the Facts
Coltan—columbite-tantalite—is a metallic ore that’s used in cell phones, laptops, car batteries, electric cars, nuclear power plants, and many other high-tech products. The world has never before needed so much of it. And right now, those needs are being filled by miners working deep in Congo’s Eastern Province. Unfortunately, these mines are devastating local communities: not only by destroying forests (and displacing thousands of people) but also by providing a steady supply of cheap labor to criminals who traffic women into sex slavery.

Next, Why Should You Care
Mining for coltan involves extracting a vital mineral from soil, rocks and even in rivers. Unfortunately, not only are there are unscrupulous people that take advantage of children for their workforce, but there’s also a lack of oversight by government officials who must be held accountable. Here’s how your phone might cause human rights violations: By allowing companies in China to exploit human labor, where demand has grown significantly. China imports about 75% of all coltan used in electronic devices and uses kids as young as 7 years old to work 12-hour days under dangerous conditions—in mud up to their waists —without adequate safety equipment or training. While leaders debate if they should intervene or pass legislation, business leaders can make an impact today by buying fair trade products that come from countries like Rwanda, Bolivia, and Ghana; all of which ensure fair pay (sometimes exceeding $8/day) and safe working conditions for adults and children alike. Business leaders can play a role in eliminating child exploitation through environmental sustainability programs as well as sales channels that deal directly with manufacturers.

Next, Where Coltan Comes From
Coltan’s original name came from a combination of two minerals, columbite, and tantalite. These minerals are found in an ore that is found near large amounts of impurities such as iron, aluminum, and magnesium. To extract the valuable tantalum, tungsten or niobium, which are collectively referred to as the metals, these impurities must be removed. This process requires high temperatures and usually requires natural gas for fuel. This creates emissions of carbon dioxide and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. The metal-extraction process also creates poisonous chemicals including lead and mercury, which then make their way into rivers where they end up in fish consumed by humans. Human Rights: As if harming human health wasn’t enough, coltan mining has been linked to child labor issues in African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where many mines are located.

What Can You Do?
If you’re looking for an idea of how to give back, or a way of giving that doesn’t feel like part of your everyday life, consider making a donation directly to Ubuntu Village. Donating every once in a while can help kids around the world get an education and stand up for their rights as humans. It all starts with knowing what’s going on around us and taking action when we know something isn’t right. People may not think they have any power, but everyone has at least some power over themselves; making sure that whatever that power is, it’s being used wisely.

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