World Rainforest Movement

Congo, Democratic Republic: Tracking the deadly thread of coltan

In April 2003, in WRM Bulletin Nº 69, we wrote an article on the Democratic Republic of Congo focused on the exploitation of columbium-tantalite (coltan, for short), widely used in cellular phones, laptop computers and video games, and how the mining of this ore has devastated forests like the Ituri forest, changing forever sites which used to sustain the Mbuti livelihoods and were the habitat of several animals like gorillas, okapis –a relative of the giraffe–, elephants and monkeys. It was a sad picture that coltan left in the forests of DRC, a scenario for war and depredation.

Now, we want to track the thread of this mineral into its processing to see whether its destruction is somehow worthwhile. For that, we’ll travel with Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, an independent journalist and writer, along the excellent report he wrote on his journey across Congo in the summer of 2006 on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He went and saw by himself what coltan leaves to the people.

Mvemba visited the city of Bukavu, “once known as the pearl of Congo because of its beautiful climate and mountains” and nowadays a coltan center. He tells that “the Bukavu I found last summer barely resembles the famed city I heard about as a child.”

Following the path of coltan, Mvemba went to the city’s Ibanda neighborhood, “to the backyard of a two-story house that someone converted into offices. Olive Depot is one of the largest coltan companies in town, but to my surprise, it is unimpressive. Considering the publicity coltan has received recently in Western media, I expected a large processing center, an imposing edifice with complex machines and engineers barking orders to their foremen. Instead, I found the most rudimentary of processing systems, two dozen men working with their hands and playing with dirt like children. No one barked orders. They worked in silence, interrupted only by the sound of their own movements. The men give us a quick look and return to their business. They are covered in dust, coltan. A couple of them sift through a large bowl of dirt and blow on the dust, which falls on their faces. It looks terrible. Most of them do not wear any mask. Neither do they wear any uniform. They also do not wear shoes, perhaps by choice. I do not ask. They work in silence.” “The process means the men in the hangar have to separate all impurities from the product itself. Deep in that dirt is coltan or its sister products of cassiterite and wolframite, and they will have to find it. The end product looks like crushed gravel.”

Mvemba tells that most of the workers have no contract: “Every morning a large group of laborers lines up outside the compound’s gate and ask for work. Few are chosen and the rest are sent home. They make less than US$1 a day.” Meanwhile, “on the international market, coltan costs between US$8 and US$18 per pound.”

And then there is the work at the mines. “At Mushangi, a treacherous path leads to the mines where we find only a handful of adults. The mines are exploited by children of all ages, working in precarious conditions. From sunrise to sunset, they toil in open pits with the most primitive tools and no protection from falling rocks and mudslides. They crawl through dark tunnels with no structural support.

“In my travel across Congo, I have seen a great deal of suffering. Watching children crawl through those pits and tunnels tested my resolve. Ten-year old Bashizi tells me, ‘I do this hard work because my father is too old to support me.’ He has been doing it for several months. ‘That is the only thing there is to do around here,’ he says.”

“The children swarm around us, seeking attention and asking to be photographed. I snap several pictures as I speak with them and hear their stories. Through my lens, I see lost childhoods and broken dreams.”

“We ask 16-year old Baruti and his friends whether they understand where their coltan goes from Mushangi. ‘It goes to Bukavu,’ they say. ‘Do you know coltan is highly prized in America and Europe? It is needed for computers, mobile phones and video games,’ I follow. ‘No,’ Baruti replies. Their world revolves around the open-pits where they spend seven days a week and make less than 20 cents a day.”

“One last question before we leave for Bukavu. It is three in the afternoon, and that is late to be out here. ‘Do you understand that the exploitation of coltan fuels the conflict in Congo?” I inquire. Baruti looks at me straight in the eye and answers, ‘If we knew that, we would no longer work here.’”

Article based on the report “In Search of Congo’s Coltan” by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, published in Pambazuka News 316, Email: pambazuka-news@pambazuka.gn.apc.org, http://www.pambazuka.org/