The coltan dilemma: when technology crushes rights

2-04-2021 | News

Without coltan there would be no smartphones, PCs and all those devices that are an integral part of our daily life. There Republic Democratic of the Congo controls the 80% of the production of the coltan, an alloy of two precious minerals (columbite and tantalite) that we find in practically all the technology produced at least in the last 10 years. In the group of the so-called lands rare, columbo-tantalite (word of which coltan is the contraction) plays a central role, especially in the African country where, following the doubling of royalties requests to mining multinationals to repay the very high public debt, the market illegal took over. With all the repercussions in terms of exploitation of workers (especially minors): as recently explained by theAgi in a dedicated special, the price of this blend has gone from $ 2 per kilogram in 1998 to $ 600 per kilogram in 2004, while today it ranges between $ 150 and $ 200.

Coltan: exploitation, health risks and conflicts

Doctors Without Borders denounced the inhumane conditions in which men, women and children employed in the mines where the precious raw material are forced to work: "To extract it, it takes deep tunnels and numerous slaves who, out of desperation, find themselves working in conditions of great exploitation with a pay of a few dollars a day, digging with spades and, for women and children, washing by hand the stones that they will transport for kilometers to the nearest broker ». In addition to physical fatigue, the repercussions of this illegal market are also noticeable in the health of those who handle the coltan: increased risk of cancer, lymphatic system diseases and genetic defects in offspring are the most frequent pathologies.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo therefore lives the so-called resource curse. Despite being one of the areas of the planet with the most riches in the subsoil - gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan - the country has never been able to translate this natural heritage into a Welfare is development widespread ed fair. For over 20 years, in this corner of Africa, in particular in the Kivu region, a conflict based on the struggle for control of resources has been going on, and always in this region is concentrated a significant part of the 5.5 million internally displaced persons found in the country. And it was here that the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo met his death on February 22 last Luca Attanasio, the carabiniere Vittorio Iacovacci and the driver Mustapha Milambo.

China: the game on rare earths

To manage the affairs of this industry on which the compartment technological of the multinationals that produce smartphones, computers and much more there are also countries like the China, an increasingly central player in the game of lands rare. As we read in this in-depth analysis ofISPI, as early as 1992 the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had stated during a trip that "the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths", indicating the path that the Asian giant would follow in the following decades, in search of precious materials such as cobalt, fundamental in the supply chain of batteries that serve to implement the transition towards electric mobility.

Technological traceability

The criticisms from theUN which, in 2002, had already accused the entire extractive industry of being responsible for the exploitation inhuman of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The coltan, specifically, it is among the most important rare earths because it has made it possible to miniaturize the devices and reduce the energy consumption of smartphone. On the other hand his traceability it has never been dealt with seriously by industry, to the point that exploitation and violations of people's rights are lost in the different steps that lead coltan from extraction to large companies. In the past they have been done campaigns of awareness raising - in Belgium the “no blood in my GSM” initiative had started - and companies like the Dutch FairPhone they made a clear choice in terms of ethical production. All this, however, collides with the exorbitant numbers of a technology market which, just to mention a fact, only in 2020 saw 1.37 billion smartphones sold worldwide.

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