Case Study: Coltan and Cell Phones

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Ferdinand Minani lives in Africa, near Kahuzi-Biega National Park on the border of Uganda and Rwanda in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ferdinand is fifteen years old and comes from the city of Butembo. He is a member of the Nande people, the largest ethnic group in the region.

Ferdinand does not go to school because his family cannot afford to pay for school expenses. Instead, Ferdinand wakes up every morning and goes to work. Ferdinand is a miner, one of over two million people in the DRC who do this dangerous work. 40% of the miners in the DRC are children.

Closer Look

Tantalum (Ta) is an element, found in the periodic table. It is a metal commonly used in electronic devices.

Tantalite is the name given to two
tantalum-containing minerals (Fe Ta2O6
and Mn Ta2O6), which share the same
crystalline structure.

Coltan is a rock (ore), containing tantalite and columbite, a related mineral. Coltan is mined from the ground and used in electronics, particularly cell phones.

The mineral most sought after is columbium tantalite, otherwise known as coltan. The contents of coltan includes tantalum (Ta), a highly valued metal used to make capacitors for electronic devices such as cellular phones, computers, jet engines, and weapons systems. Without coltan, the majority of digital products used throughout the world would not exist.

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    Image by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007.

Coltan is mined today in the same primitive way that gold was extracted in California during the 1800s. Miners dig large craters and tunnels in streambeds to reach coltan-embedded dirt and mud. Once gathered and lifted out, the dirt is sloshed around with water in large washtubs. This makes the coltan settle to the bottom of the tub where it can be collected.  

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    Image by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007.

Ferdinand's work is hard and dangerous. Sometimes he tunnels down several meters, squeezing under and between rocks to access the coltan-rich dirt. There is always the risk of rocks collapsing on him, or the air becoming too thin to breathe. Ferdinand takes these risks every day for the possibility of earning the equivalent of US$2 a day — almost seven times more than an average non-mining adult worker makes in the DRC.

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Many people in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda have moved to Kahuzi-Biega National Park to mine coltan. The expansion of the mines and the influx of people have caused massive deforestation within this rich tropical forest. In addition, the population of Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) has declined by 90% since the 1990s. The flood of miners into the region has led to gorillas being killed and their meat being sold as bush meat.

Closer Look

Watch this short video for more information on coltan mining in the DRC.

Despite its abundant mineral resources, the DRC is among the poorest countries in the world.  Ravaged by civil wars, government corruption, and resource exploitation by transnational corporations, the people of the DRC spend what little they have on necessities for day-to-day survival.

Rev. Sébastien Muyengo is the Catholic bishop of Uvira in eastern Congo. He writes in his book Land of Gold and Blood that coltan mining — and the civil wars it has incited — impoverishes not only the people’s bodies, but also their souls. The daily experience of greed, mistrust, and violence in the Kahuzi- Biega mines break the human spirit and dull people’s sensitivities to the sacred values of land, plants and animals.  As Pope Francis says in section 46 of his encyclical letter Laudato Si’:  "The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together."

Since 2008, a non-profit organization called Breaking the Silence: Congo Week has organized a global consciousness-raising campaign about the coltan problem in the DRC. Every year on the third week of October, communities around the world join in partnership with the Congolese people by screening films, holding teach-ins and forums, organizing rallies, hosting fundraisers, and putting on concerts that focus on the humanitarian and environmental crisis in the DRC. Over the past seven years, groups in over 65 countries and 400 university campuses have hosted events to 'break the silence'. Visit the organization website and Facebook page and find out how you can help.

Whether it is a matter of extracting minerals, cutting down forests, or killing gorillas, stories like Ferdinand’s are occurring throughout the world today. All living beings on our planet need Earth's natural resources. However, these resources are dwindling, often through methods that harm human beings. To preserve and protect these resources, it is important to know what they are and how they fit into Earth's complex ecosystem. With this knowledge, we can approach natural resources--and the human beings who extract them--with respect. These are the topics that guide this chapter.  

  • How is matter organized on Earth? What are the fundamental cycles of matter that form the basis of our natural resources? What are Earth’s principal natural resources? What are the environmental impacts of natural resource extraction and use?
  • There are many ethical questions raised today about how to best manage and maintain Earth's natural resources. What contribution do the moral principles, goals, and virtues of Healing Earth make in response to these questions?
  • Do you sense a relationship between your own inner spirit and Earth’s natural resources? What do people mean when they say that they experience natural resources as 'sacred'? What value do different religions of the world place on Earth’s natural resources?
  • What actions are being taken in the world today that are hopeful signs of responsible natural resource management? Are there actions being taken in your community to use natural resources sustainably?