Cell Out, Coltan, the Congo, and Raising Awareness

October 21st, 2009
Trying to see how reasonable the "Cell Out" campaign is. The idea of this campaign is that people are supposed to all turn their cell phones off for an hour and set the voicemail to something like:

Did you know that Congo has anywhere from 64 - 80 percent of the world's reserve of coltan, a natural resource that is central to the operation of our cell phones? As we benefit from coltan nearly 6 million Congolese have died in the deadliest conflict since World War Two as a result of the scramble for coltan and other minerals key to the functioning of modern technology. Join us in solidarity with the Congolese people and fast from your phone for an hour

So first, there are some problems I have with this message. It implies that our cell phones are possible only because of exploitation of the congo's coltan (after all, they apparently have most of it). But this is misleading. We care about coltan (called columbo-tantalite elsewhere) because one can extract tantalum from it. The tantalum in cell phones and other sources mostly does not come from the congo. Instead, it's mostly austrailian. With official 2006 figures for the congo showing the congolese fraction at .7%. Even if we were to assume that all tantalum mined in africa was in fact mined illegally in the congo and smuggled out to other countries to be reported in their production figures, the same figures show we would get only 15% of global production.

What is more frustrating, they don't source their "64 - 80 percent" figure, and looking on line I can't see anything about the fraction of coltan reserves in various places. The only place I can find, another usgs.gov report, just says "N/A" under reserves in the congo. I should ask them.

Update 10/22/2009: I asked them about this, and they got back to me:
  1. BBC "Congo's Coltan Rush"
  2. Niobium Institute - they removed the info from their site about two years ago. We printed it out before they removed it. They claimed that 80 percent of the coltan in the world is found in African and 80 percent of that is found in the Congo
  3. 2008 US Government Accountability Office GAO Report on the Congo which states 64 percent.
I checked the GAO link and it does say 64%. No indication how the GAO got the number. I've emailed them to ask for details. I also emailed the BBC to ask about their 80% number.

I looked through old versions of the tanb site on the wayback machine. No luck finding the 80% of 80% figure there.

Update 10/27/2009: The GAO got back to me about the 64% reserves figure in report GAO-08-562T:
The source for the information you referenced is from "Under-Mining Peace -- Tin: The Explosive Trade in Cassiterite in Eastern DRC," a report by Global Witness, June 2005.
This is apparently available online. On page 13 of this document there is the line:
Although Australia is currently the largest producet of coltan, it is estimated that Africa possesses 80% of the world's reserves, with 80% of this believed to be in DRC.
and the words "64% of the world's known coltan reserves occur in the DRC" are set off in bold type. There is no citation for this estimate.

Is the Second Congo War really "a result of the scramble for coltan and other minerals key to the functioning of modern technology"? This I find somewhat believable, but it does contrast pretty strongly with descriptions elsewhere that have minerals serving as funding sources for the war but not causes.

The real problem I have with this, though, is that it is crazy to expect individual end users of a material to be aware of its effect on the world. People use so many different substances that they can't know where they all came from. More importantly, if I were to avoid all tainted sources (spend more to buy certified australian tantalum, free range eggs, sweatshop-free clothing, ...) that would have a huge cost in both my time and my money. It would be hard to find out what was ok and what wasn't and then actually buying this stuff would be more expensive. The more I spend on this stuff, the less I can give to oxfam. So while I see value in raising awareness of how bad things are globally, raising awareness of specific things like tantalum in cell phones that might come from the congo seems like a waste.

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