17 October 2006

What the hell is Coltan and who put it in my phone?

"As you crawl through the tiny hole, using your arms and fingers to scratch, there's not enough space to dig properly and you get badly grazed all over. And then, when you do finally come back out with the cassiterite, the soldiers are waiting to grab it at gunpoint. Which means you have nothing to buy food with. So we're always hungry."

That's how Muhanga Kawaya, a miner in the remote northeastern province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), described his job to reporter Jonathan Miller of Britain's Channel 4 last year. Cassiterite, or tin oxide, is the most important source of the metallic element tin, and the DRC is home to fully one-third of the world's reserves. Some cassiterite miners work on sites operated directly by the country's military or other armed groups. Working in the same area are "artisanal" miners who are theoretically independent, like prospectors in America's Old West. But the cassiterite they extract is heavily taxed by the soldiers -- when it's not just stolen outright.

With a land area as vast as that of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado combined, the DRC has only 300 miles of paved roads. To reach one of the many cassiterite mines in the virtually roadless northeast, 1,000 miles from the national capital Kinshasa, Miller's team followed a 40-mile footpath that, he reported, was as "busy as a motorway. Four thousand porters ply this route carrying sacks of rock heavier than they are. Each of their 50 kilogram packs of cassiterite is worth $400 on the world market. Government soldiers often force porters at gunpoint to carry the rocks free of charge; if they're lucky, though, they can make up to $5 a day." (Watch Channel 4's gripping, award-winning report http://www.channel4.com/news/special-reports/special-reports-storypage.jsp?id=301)

But the newest coverage appears on "Foreign exchange" hosted by Fareed Zakaria who you probably recognize from his newsweek column and his appearances on "This Week" the Sunday morning talk show.

Click the link above or this one right here to see the video:

then click on the "watch the show online" real media seems to work best.

Coltan is the colloquial African name for (columbite-tantalite), a metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum. Mineral concentrates containing tantalum are usually referred to as 'tantalite' [1]. In appearance, coltan is a dull black mineral. It has been noted that the exportation of coltan has helped fuel the war in the Congo, a conflict that has resulted in approximately 4 million deaths. Rwanda and Uganda are currently exporting stolen coltan from the Congo to the West (mainly US), where it is then used in high-technology, such as cell-phones, DVD players, Playstations, etc

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