Industry, Congress Work to Block Congolese Coltan

Published March 4, 2010

Human-rights groups are praising efforts by federal regulators to audit, trace, and restrict supplies of a mineral used in electronics manufacturing but exported by some oppressive countries, but maintaining the practice may prove difficult to implement in the long term.

The mineral, coltan (short for columbite-tantalite), serves as a key component of capacitors in laptop computers, mobile phones, pacemakers, and a wide variety of other electronics.

Most coltan in world commerce comes from China and Australia, but a small fraction—the electronics industry contends about 1 percent, but some human rights groups put the figure higher—comes from the war-torn, mineral rich Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bill to Stop Trade
Reps. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) have co-sponsored a bill (HR 4128) to stop the flow of coltan from the Congo into the United States. The legislation would require audits of the amount of coltan and other minerals in electronics and other goods imported into the United States.

After several years, imports of coltan-containing electronics the contents of which could not be verified would face a total ban.

The bill has attracted a broad range of sponsors from conservative stalwart Sam Brownback (R-KS) to liberal Russ Feingold (D-WI).

“It is within our power to make a meaningful difference by shining the light of truth into the darkness that currently is the supply chain for minerals mined in war-ravaged Congo that can end up in consumer electronics and other products we use every day,” Rep. McDermott said when introducing his legislation in November.

Mined by Slave Labor
In the Congo, militia groups make use of slave labor forces, often made up of children, to mine coltan and sell it on the world market. The profits from these coltan sales fund the purchase of weapons, ammunition, and supplies that continue violence that has claimed well over eight million lives in the past decade in the deadliest conflict since World War II.

No major manufacturer knowingly uses coltan produced by these militia groups, but the relative ease of mining it combined with its high value on world markets makes it almost certain some so-called “conflict coltan” has made its way into electronic goods sold in the United States.

Tech Industry Takes Action
Working through two existing industry groups—the Global E-Sustainability Initiative (GESI) and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC)—the electronics industry has launched a broad effort to monitor its supply chains for all minerals including coltan, in an effort to root out unethical suppliers.

Doing this hasn’t been easy.

“The metals market can be understood by analogy to a pool of water that is being fed by many streams,” wrote GESI and EICC in a joint report released last year. “Numerous sources, including primary and recycled metal producers, supply the metals market, which is a global commodity pool that circulates and mixes freely.”

Human Rights Groups Cheer
A broad coalition of groups ranging from Human Rights Watch to the Mennonite Central Committee has warmly welcomed the proposed law.

“[HR 4128] would provide a crucial step toward the creation of a practical and enforceable means to ensure that the trade in Congolese minerals contributes to peace rather than war,” the groups wrote in a joint statement in November.

Although no organization openly opposes the bill, most agree implementing it will be difficult. The bill calls for private, government-certified groups to carry out the coltan certification process, and no organization currently does this. After almost two years of work, a German-led effort intended to “fingerprint” and thus trace coltan from Congo still hasn’t borne fruit.

“In many cases, tracing back to the origins of a particular supply of coltan is pretty difficult, even impossible,” explains Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs at the Arlington, Virginia-based Consumer Electronics Association.  “We’re concerned about the entire mine operation, but right now it’s very challenging to figure out how we trace this.”

Eli Lehrer ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“Social and Environmental Responsibility in Metals Supply to the Electronic Industry,” Global e-Sustainability Initiative & Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, June 2008: