Out of Africa: the blood tantalum in your mobile phone
Tantalum is a rare metal with unique properties. Chief among these is that with a melting point of 2996 degrees Celsius it's a superlative thermal conductor.
Almost two-thirds of the world's tantalum production ends up in high quality capacitors that are used in devices such as mobile phones and other electronic gadgets.
Only trace quantities are used in each device with a typical Nokia mobile phone, for instance, containing about 40 milligrams of the stuff. But being the golden age of gadgetry, tantalum should be in high demand.
And as the mining company supplying more than 50 per cent of the world's tantalum demand, Australia'sTalison Minerals should have been reaping the rewards of its market domination.
Talison - which operates tantalum mines at Wodgina in the Pilbara and Greenbushes, three hours' drive south-east of Perth - has instead spent the past three years scaling down its operations.
That process culminated last December in the mothballing of the second and largest of its mines at Wodgina - a decision that brought a halt to all of its tantalum mining and most of its processing.
With spot prices for tantalum today in the doldrums, high extraction and compliance costs and an unfavourable exchange rate, the company says it's no longer viable to mine the ore in Australia.
As a result, what was a multi-million dollar export market has all but dried up.
Peter Robinson, a veteran mining executive who has been Talison's chief executive since 2006, says it's not just the fault of the prevailing economic climate.
The roots of Talison's problems lie in a conflict that is being fought out 10,000 kilometres away on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
For much of the past decade, cheap supplies of tantalum derived from mines under the control of various rebel groups based in the north-eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have flowed into a long and complex supply chain.
Among those groups profiting from this trade are Hutu militia associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"There doesn't seem to be any shortage of material coming from that area," Robinson says. "People are making money wherever they can."
In central Africa, tantalum is extracted from an ore called coltan, short for columbite-tantalite.
Coltan is found in alluvial deposits or mined in primitive open-cut pits by workers - some of whom are children, enslaved or indentured - using the most basic of tools.
In the same way that the Taliban uses opium to fund its war in Afghanistan, or rebel groups in Colombia thrive off the proceeds of cocaine sales, the civil war in Congo is bankrolled by the sale of illegally mined "conflict resources" such as tantalum.
The International Rescue Committee refugee action group says the conflict has resulted in the death of over 5.4 million Congolese over the past decade.
"The economic dimension of the conflict has always been an important dimension but originally when some of these armed groups were created they weren't necessarily there to exploit the minerals," says Carina Tertsakian, a team leader with Global Witness, a London-based NGO that investigates natural resource exploitation.
"But as they managed to take over territory and found that these territories were very rich in minerals they then took advantage of that - a kind of opportunistic behaviour."
The problem now, she says, is that, having realised that there's money to be made, they've become more difficult to dislodge.
The Merchant of Death
The man who is above all responsible for making the trade in this so-called "blood tantalum" a profitable one is Victor Bout, a 42-year-old former Russian military officer dubbed the Merchant of Death.
Beginning in the mid-'90s, Bout ran a business that was built around his fleet of Soviet-era cargo planes, which he used to conduct his clandestine smuggling operations across sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, busting sanctions, fomenting civil wars and genocide.
He had supplied arms and logistical support to the UNITA rebel group in the Angolan civil war and to the former Liberia president (and now indicted war criminal) Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone. Both operations were funded in part by the sale of blood diamonds.
Bout, who was named in a United Nations report as a part of a "transnational criminal network", simply transplanted the business model into the eastern Congo when the fallout from the Rwandan genocide spilled over into its neighbour's resource-rich regions.
"A UN report from 2002 found that 70 per cent of the coltan exported from DRC was mined by the Rwandan army and that Bout's aircraft were used in flying it out," says André Verløy , who investigated Bout in 2002 during his time at the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity.
The investigation was part of an online project called Making a Killing: the Business of War, which explored the world of arms traffickers, resources exploiters and corrupt politicians who profited from wars and also developed an interest in perpetuating them.
These days, Bout spends his time inside Bangkok's Klong Prem prison waiting for the outcome of an extradition request from the US where he is wanted on arms smuggling charges.
Lured from his Moscow lair to Thailand last year, the man described by the author and terrorism expert Douglas Farah as the "prototype of the 21st century facilitator of the criminal/terrorist network", was captured in an elaborate sting led by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
But back in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade it was Bout's flair for logistics and warmongering that helped keep the Congo in perpetual anarchy.
Pressuring the supply chain
Robinson knows where the blame lies. He says it's the pressure being exerted by manufacturers in the electronic industry supply chain to keep prices low that encourages buyers to seek the cheapest possible sources.
And he's not alone in that assessment.
Two NGOs, Global Witness and The Enough Project, are ramping up separate campaigns to alert equipment and component manufacturers and consumers to the role that conflict minerals such as tantalum (and tin and tungsten) play in Congo's turmoil.
In February, during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Global Witness wrote to major mobile phone manufacturers as well as mineral and metal traders to ask them what due diligence measures they were taking to ensure that their sourcing practices were not fuelling the conflict.
"The main problem is that these foreign companies are not asking serious questions about where products are coming from," says Global Witness's Tertsakian. "They are quite happy to carry on buying minerals from [middle men] knowing that at least some of them may have been produced by or passed through the hands of armed groups."
In the past week, there's finally been some action. The Luxembourg-based metals investor Traxys has announced it will cease buying ore from mines in eastern Congo from June 1.
Traxys was named in UN report last year for purchasing tin and coltan ore from companies with links to mines controlled by a Rwandan Hutu rebel group.
And this may be buttressed by legislation that is being drafted in the United States. Late last month, a Republican US Senator and two Democrat colleagues got the process under way.
The Congo Conflict Minerals Act calls on the United States to support efforts to "investigate, monitor, and stop activities involving natural resources that contribute to illegally armed groups and human rights violations in eastern Congo".
The legislation would also put the armed groups that control the eastern provinces of the Congo and their finances under increased scrutiny.
And it would require US companies to adhere to much stricter rules on the disclosure of the origins of any of the three key conflict minerals for this region.
That type of compliance is going to make life tougher for the likes of Apple, Sony, Dell and Nokia. But if he helps to stem the flow of minerals from Congo, it will put a smile back on the face of Talison's Peter Robinson.
Video and Multimedia:
:: Rape of a Nation - a multimedia presentation by MediaStorm.
:: Devil's Bargain - documentary about arms smuggling featuring Viktor Bout.
:: Congo's Bloody Coltan - video report from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.
:: Environmental issues related to ASM in the Kivus - A slideshow by Estelle Levin
:: The Dirt in the New Machine - NYT magazine artcile on coltan mining in the DRC
:: Arms and the Man - NYT magazine article by Peter Landesman
:: The Merchant of Death (PDF) - Douglas Farah on Viktor Bout, Foreign Policy Magazine, Nov/Dec 2006
:: Taking Down Arms Dealer Viktor Bout - Men's Journal's piece on the downfall of Viktor Bout
Viktor Bout's Last Deal - Mother Jones article from
:: Making a Killing - The Centre for Public Integrity's report on Viktor Bout and the business of illegal gun-running.
:: Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (PDF) - a report by Karen Hayes and Richard Burge for Fauna and Flora International
:: The Business of War: Constructive Corporate Engagement in the Coltan Trade in the DR Congo - Estelle Levin's 2003 report
:: Congo, Coltan, Conflict - The Heinz Journal, Carnegie Mellon University. By Benjamin Todd, March 2006
:: Trading Conflict for Development. - a report on the trade in militarised minerals from the Eastern DR Congo.April 2009.