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12 | Global StudieS Review Vol. 4, No. 3, fall 2008
Blood Diamonds of the Digital Age:
Coltan and the Eastern Congo
Nobody likes to hear about blood diamonds, that
something venerated as our culture’s highest
token of commitment and affection comes to us
haunted by specters of oppression, cruelty and
murder. It took a 2006 film with Leonardo
DiCaprio playing the role of a diamond-embez-
zling South African mercenary and a $100 million production budget
from Warner Brothers to even begin to raise general public awareness
about mineral exploitation in Africa. It is not surprising then that
nearly a decade after a few daring investigative reports first emerged
divulging how war in the eastern Congo was being fueled by the global
trade in coltan—a dense silicate necessary for most of the electronic
products we have today—both the ore itself and the story it told about
the digital age linger in relative obscurity. Yet, the problem has not
gone away. At the height of news reporting on coltan in 2001, the death
toll was a couple million. In 2008, conservative estimates indicate that
5.4 million Congolese have lost their lives because of ongoing conflicts
in the region, most of which has been and continues to be financed
through the expropriation and sale of minerals. The problem is more
endemic: the Congo suffers from what economist Jeffrey Sachs and
others have called a resource curse. Rich in diamonds, gold, cobalt,
copper, cassiterite and coltan—columbite-tantalite, from which one
gets the heat resistant conductor tantalum—the Congo has for centu-
ries been persistently plundered by pirates, prospectors and profiteers
anxious to make a killing capitalizing off its wealth. The Congo seems
to have endured this curse ever since contact with the Europe in the
late 15th century, from losing over 13 million in conflicts with the Por-
tuguese and the transatlantic slave trade, to the frenetic expropriation
of rubber and ivory under Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late 1800s
and early 1900s which killed 10 million Congolese, through its role as
a Cold War buffer under the US-backed 1965-1997 dictatorship of
Mobuto Sese Seko, to the conflict of today. The Congo has continu-
ously constituted a textbook example of the resource-death equation
historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics.
tHE SIGNIfIcaNcE of coltaN
Coltan used to be something Congolese miners threw away while
looking for cassiterite. But in the 1990s it was discovered that
tantalum, which is extracted from coltan, provided a uniquely dense
platform for fashioning high charge conductors, ones that would
become indispensable for a range of digital age technologies such as
mobile telephones, gaming devices, and microprocessors. The
During the crisis that ensued on the buckled and leaking platform, 422
barrels a day were spilling into the Campeche Sound for several weeks.
Pemex Director General Jesus Reyes Heroles claimed that as such a
small producer (3500 barrels per day of petroleum and 7 millions of
cubic feet of natural gas), posed a minimal threat to the environment.
To the consternation of environmentalists, he took a “it could be a lot
worse!” attitude. Pemex director Reyes Heroles downplayed the Kab
101 spill, by invoking an earlier spill in Cantarell’s history, Ixtoc I.
During the oil field’s exploratory phase, a drilling accident caused a 13
million barrel spill that remained uncapped from June 1979 to March
1980. Known as the “Ixtoc I blowout,” this disaster still holds the
record as the worst unintentional oil spill in history.
Thirty years later and a nearly complete dearth of information on the
environmental impact of the Ixtoc spill makes it practically impossible
to compare the damage between a “small spill” like Kab 101 and the
largest spill in history, Ixtoc I. Yet from the nearby beaches of
Campeche, reports soon came in of a black-stained sea and noxious
odor. State delegate representing the state’s attorney for environmental
protection (PROFEPA), Jose Carlos Martínez León, dismissed the
alarm, claiming that the noxious substance washing up on the beaches
of Ciudad del Carmen were not from the Usumacinta spill. Instead he
went on to explain, that it was fuel from other boats which were sunk
in the area as a security precaution. The small amounts of oil spilled in
the Gulf, he said, were not a cause for alarm.
Fishermen, environmentalists and others in Campeche were unwilling
to accept yet another excuse and answered with shouts of ecocide. By
the official toll, 16,000 barrels of oil and 19.6 million cubic feet of nat-
ural gas were released into the air and sea. Pemex will most likely pay a
fine, estimated at $280,000. Fishing cooperatives in Isla Aguada and
throughout the coastal region are already laying claim to this sum in
compensation for their further loss in capture. However, to date, no
comprehensive environmental impact study has emerged, neither pre-
liminary nor ongoing.
As the global economy profits from oil crisis panics, frontline
communities, such as Isla Aguada, will see the effects of the post-peak
oil economy come into even sharper relief. Not only will the pressure
be felt on an already collapsing fishing industry, but also the future does
not bode well for the only plans local residents have sketched out:
ecotourism project based on the flora and fauna diversity of the
APFFLT. This uncertain future is leveraged on Pemex and the private
sector protecting an already fragile and damaged coastal environment.
Lisa Breglia ( is Assistant Director of the Global Affairs
Program at George Mason University (
Global StudieS Review Vol. 4, No. 3, fall 2008
global studies revieW | 13
explosion of digital age technologies in the 1990s and early 2000s
happened to coincide with a conflict in the eastern Democratic
Republic of the Congo that had become so entrenched it came to be
known as Africa’s First World War, a protracted engagement involving
at least nine African nations and dozens of roving militias with varying
and fickle loyalties. As digital technological development struggled to
keep pace with global demand, the Congo—which holds an estimated
80% of the world’s coltan—increasingly became tapped for its
extensive reserves, most notably with the release of the Sony
PlayStation 2 in 2000, when coltan prices spiked tenfold because of
supply shortages. All of this accelerated violence in the Congo, as
coltan was traded by local militias for munitions. These militias,
largely composed of child soldiers, are particularly known for their
viciousness, as they gang rape, plunder and murder the populations of
villages that happen to fall in their path, a strategy of terror designed
to facilitate regional domination and unfettered compliance among
local populations. Ecological devastation was wrought as protected
forests held refuge for warlords and the dwindling populations of
gorilla and elephants were consumed by starving child soldiers and
wayward miners. At a time when digital age technologies are being
hailed by globalization enthusiasts as ushering in a new kind of global
era with some speaking prophetically about the death of distance, the
productive underbelly of all this technological progress—all those
who actually dig the stuff out of the ground in far flung locations so
that our cell phones and Sony PlayStations work—struggles vainly to
reach over digital divides. For all its mineral wealth, the Congo has a
deteriorated infrastructure, a population that lives on less than a dollar
a day, nearly non-existent health care, and an unabated humanitarian
crisis. Yet for all the devastation that the global coltan trade has
brought to the Congo, for all the attendant meanings one can ascribe
to this mineral that make it so contrary to our digital age optimism,
Congolese continue to see great potential in coltan and other minerals
for bringing about maendeleo—in Swahili, a kind of development, or
sense of moving forward. Interestingly, Congolese have seized upon
the mineral trade with an inspired fortitude as they undulate
precariously forward, improvising entire economies out of literally
nothing in the forest.
tHE Global flow of coltaN
Though there are a few high volume government regulated mines,
most coltan is mined by artisans in remote villages in the eastern
Congo. Numbering in the hundreds of thousandsby some estimates
as many as a millionthese creuseurs work without anything more
than the most basic of tools. Often these coltan villages take days to
get to from any major town or city over unfriendly terrain, either
without roads or at best with poorly maintained dirt roads. The mines
I visited in Numbi, in northern Kalehe territory in South Kivu, I
reached only by motorbike through the forest. It is astonishing then to
see when one reaches these villages elaborately devised mines, com-
plete with homemade water delivery and catchment systems, erupting
in forests without the aid of any machinery. Village men and boys
work the mines, digging and sorting out the valuable ore by hand,
under treacherous conditions. Accidents and deaths in the mines are
common; but creuseurs will tell you that this is the only way to make
a decent living. The cattle have all been slaughtered or stolen. If you
try to farm, soldiers are likely to seize your harvest. Yet ore that is
pilfered can be replaced, as there is plenty to be found in the ground.
Porters earning only a few dollars for what is usually at least a day-long
walk through the forest carry sacks of coltan weighing as much as 50
lbs on their heads to middlemen. The latter are known as négociants,
who are set up in larger villages with dirt road accessibility to major
towns and cities. They, in turn, sell to larger négociants or comptoirs
(accountants), usually in the provincial Kivu capitals of Goma or
Bukavu, who distribute the ore to international buyers from markets as
varied as Rwanda, South Africa, Belgium and China. Most coltan—
still in form of bulk ore that needs refining into tantalum—is then
funneled into Australia, the world’s largest tantalum producer. Since
Australia also mines large amounts of coltan, any concrete determina-
tion of the origin of tantalum sold on the world market proves elusive.
Americans, for instance, import nearly 80% of their tantalum from
Australia, corresponding to 90% in terms of value, but there is no
way of determining what percentage of that total originated in the
Congo. The complex global exchange process, which underlies and
mystifies this commodity, parallels that of the diamond trade and also
helps to explain why many international organizations express feelings
of paralysis in trying to tackle the issue and promulgate reforms.
polIcy ImplIcatIoNS
Development planners and Congolese government officials have
actively advocated the need for a concerted effort to rein in all these
itinerant forest miners. This would seem to control the blood coltan
problem by centralizing mines in locales that are amenable to
oversight and regulations. Moreover, this would foster favorable
economies of scale for international sale since these mines can be
easily made road and air accessible and mechanized. Indeed, some
planners have even candidly decried artisanal miners as a problem or
scourge for a stable mining industry. But for anyone that has had so
much as a simple conversation with artisanal miners, the idea that
they would simply go away, be absorbed as labor into massive govern-
ment mines or return to agriculture is a naïve proposition. Congolese
value their self-reliance, as under Mobutu’s dictatorship and in over a
decade of war since his ouster they have become accustomed to having
to fend for themselves, or as Mobutu directed them: débrouillez-vous.
For miners whose agricultural land has fallen fallow, where labor for
14 | Global StudieS Review Vol. 4, No. 3, fall 2008
Security Building & Youth in Morocco
Located at the intersection of Africa and Europe,
the kingdom of Morocco has long been a melting
pot and a colorful example of globalization. Since
the 9th century AD Berbers, Muslims and Jews
lived, worked and studied together in this region.
Today’s youth bulge in North Africa can be
viewed as both a challenge and an opportunity for the Maghreb. In
Morocco, young people benefit from increased global links yet grapple
with unemployment, illegal migration and growing radicalism.
This precarious situation invites us to look at the issue in terms of both
economic and psychosocial needs. Initiatives designed to constructively
intervene in adolescents’ lives should integrate conflict management
skills training into youth-focused economic programs.
Following a sharp rise in extremist activities in the region, many
security experts are now quick to note Morocco’s strategic location in
the war on global terrorism. International leaders keen to thwart the
spread of radicalism in North Africa—where terrorism is again on the
rise in Algeria and a recent coup in Mauritania alarmed Western and
African allies alike —should make the plight of youth in the region
a priority since they are particularly vulnerable for recruitment.
Moroccan police have reportedly broken up more than fifty terrorist
cells and arrested roughly 3,000 people since 2003, when twelve suicide
attackers killed thirty-three people in Casablanca. This first-ever suicide
attack on Moroccan soil resulted in a new discourse on social disparities
in Moroccan society, as the young attackers had come from the
Casablanca slum area Sidi Moumen. An in-depth look at conflict
dynamics in Morocco reveals that successful security-building is
intimately intertwined with the stability of its youth.
Individuals can acquire values and social norms both vertically (e.g.
when family traditions are passed down) and horizontally (through the
less routinized spheres of extended social networks). In an increasingly
interconnected world, youth have access to an astronomical influx of
horizontal inputs. Although Islamic cultural norms traditionally have
been passed on to Moroccan youth from one generation to the next,
recent studies show that this generation is the first in its history to have
such vast access to the outside world using the Internet and other forms
of modern communications. Suffice it to look at the country’s music
festivals, its media production and consumption as well as the number
of national and international NGOs on the ground, which all point to
Moroccans as active agents of globalization.
Young people today live in a rapidly changing society that looks up to
the material wealth of its European neighbors while still maintaining
farming has become scarce because of war, where the cattle—which
constitute bridewealth necessary for getting married, and thus are the
sine qua non for stable households—are gone and need to be bought
with cash, and where trust that the government or UN peacekeepers
can provide stability and protection has eroded, the idea of abandon-
ing mines is simply illogical. Perceptions to the contrary rely on a
cultural misperception, one that presumes Congolese have the same
sense of civil society as say, the French or Americans, and all of the
concomitant trust in the political and economic structure that goes
along with effective neoliberal development strategy. As economic
sociologists and anthropologists have repeatedly demonstrated,
economic rationalities must be socially embedded to be effective.
Part of the lack of faith in this political economy relates to a widespread
recognition that the problem of conflict coltan really doesn’t exist at
the level of production, but rather in the arena of exchange, where
powerful international traders continue to exert oligopolistic control
over the trade. These were the same traders who bought and some-
times are still buying coltan from warlords, and ironically some of the
traders are warlords themselves. Any effective development strategy
needs to seriously confront the problem of closed markets and the
objective to replace the government-subsidized cartel over the mining
sector with more sustainable institutional structures. The Congo
would also be well served by investing in an effective tantalum refin-
ery, rather than continuing to rely on these same elusive, expropriative
routes of exchange. Lastly, corporate responsibility movements hold
great promise in part because they have the potential of demystifying
the mechanics of the trade, giving lending transparency to a process
otherwise inaccessible to most independent researchers. A number of
mobile telecommunication and other companies have actively
attempted to figure out ways to certify coltan as free of conflict, as a
branding strategy to encourage further consumers.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the resolution of the blood coltan
issue is complacency. No one is likely to make a Hollywood block-
buster called “Blood Coltan”. Nonetheless, it is important to inspire a
greater recognition of the culture under which Congolese mining
operates, such that it aids policymakers and development planners to
facilitate strategies that enable moral economies, ones that will work
for establishing global mineral security, and a faith in the promises of
the digital age.
Jeffrey W. Mantz ( is Assistant Professor in the Department
of Sociology & Anthropology at George Mason University (http://
... Materiality is at the core of these deteriorated futures, these futures of decline. Amongst the most notorious -but far from the only -mineral mined in this region is coltan, from which three separate materials are extracted that are sold to electronics manufacturers (Mantz 2008;Smith 2015). Practically every digital capacitor, laptop screen, even tin wiring, includes components that are sourced from the DRC. ...
... Note 1 It should be noted that many Congolese people view working in or adjacent to the mining industries in the DRC as a significant source of economic potential. I did not find so many people in my study who voiced these opinions but they are established in the literature, and it is important to recognise the role of mineral industries in stimulating local economies in the DRC (see Smith 2015;Mantz 2008 ...
... Materiality is at the core of these deteriorated futures, these futures of decline. Amongst the most notorious -but far from the only -mineral mined in this region is coltan, from which three separate materials are extracted that are sold to electronics manufacturers (Mantz 2008;Smith 2015). Practically every digital capacitor, laptop screen, even tin wiring, includes components that are sourced from the DRC. ...
... Note 1 It should be noted that many Congolese people view working in or adjacent to the mining industries in the DRC as a significant source of economic potential. I did not find so many people in my study who voiced these opinions but they are established in the literature, and it is important to recognise the role of mineral industries in stimulating local economies in the DRC (see Smith 2015;Mantz 2008 ...
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