Q&A on coltan
One of the most fascinating books I read this year is about one mineral: Coltan. Authored by Congo expert Michael Nest, the book is a comprehensive discussion of an extrodinarily complex issue. Nest does an admirable job of explaining what the commodity is, why it matters, and of dissecting the debates around coltan. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in conflict minerals or advocacy in general as it points to both successes and failures in the DRC-focused movement.
Nest was kind enough to take the time for a Q&A about Coltan:
TiA: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching Coltan?
Nest: The enormous gulf in communication and understanding between activists and industry. Industry pays little attention to what activists say and are not very aware of academic debates about natural resources and conflict. Yet activists and these debates have an impact of the legislation and regulations that eventually affect them, such as the ‘conflict minerals’ clause in Washington’s recent Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Similarly, activists pay little attention to industry and are often dismissive and cynical about industry views. Yet, industry can be an excellent source of data about mining and of analysis of how the global resources sector works. When I was researching the book I felt like I was going back and forth between different worlds. Both sides could learn from listening to the other, and anyone who wants to understand the political economy of the minerals sector needs to read information from these sources.
TiA: In the book, you mention that the oft-repeated statistic about 80% of the world’s coltan supply being in Congo is incorrect. Can you give a brief summary as to why and how that incorrect statistic became so well-known?
Nest: That is a good question! I still scratch my head about how this figure, which I am positive is incorrect, has been so widely propagated. I think activists and others interested in the link between coltan and conflict do themselves a great disservice by repeating such statistics without questioning them or researching them. Inaccurate statistics can undermine an argument, even if it is motivated by a moral imperative. People in industry and government who might initially listen to what activists or journalists say often switch off when they hear statistics that are not supported by evidence.
As to how the statistic came about…I really do not know the origin of the figure, other than it was probably first produced in either a BBC or Agence France Presse news report from the late 1990s/early 2000s. Possibly the 80% refers to the amount of coltan on the spot market (ie, open market and not tied up in long-term contracts) coming from the DRC. This figure may have then been misinterpreted by others to refer to world reserves or world production. However, most writers about coltan appear unaware of the role of the spot market in the coltan trade, which makes me wonder whether this really was the origin of the figure. I’m guessing that the figure of 80% fitted in with journalists’ desire to dramatise what at first glance appears to be another story of Africans as victims: having a precious resource sought after by rich countries that will do anything to obtain it. The truth is more complicated and nuanced than this.
The DRC’s share of global tantalite production remains unclear. However, the figure is likely to be between 20-30% at the current time. Historically it is more likely to have been around 15-20%. In regards to reserves, there has been no comprehensive geological survey work in the DRC since the early 1990s as a result of war and instability. However, there is certainly no evidence that the DRC has 80% of the world’s reserves.
TiA: What led you to write a book about one specific mineral?
Nest: I was asked to write this book by Polity Press, which is bringing out a series of the geopolitics of six natural resources: oil, food, fish, water, timber and coltan. My previous book focused on the economic dimensions of the Congo War (1998-2003) and this is one reason they asked me to write about coltan.
Writing a book about a specific mineral, especially one linked to conflict and violence like coltan, is a challenge. Solutions to conflict and violence in the DR Congo and other countries where armed groups profit from natural resources, require integrated approaches that take into account all resource exploitation and all minerals. Isolating a commodity and analysing it out of its sectoral context can result in one losing track of its importance and significance relative to other commodities.
However, in order to develop both theories of natural resources and conflict and policy responses to such conflicts, it is analytically important to understand and be able to distinguish the political economy of individual commodities. Because there has been so little good analysis, yet so much debate, on the tantalite global supply chain, I thought it was important to lay out the facts for this particular mineral and not simply lump it together in an analysis of other ‘conflict minerals’. The editors at Polity Press were aware there was a market for such a book that focused on one specific mineral.
TiA: What’s your take on the advocacy efforts surrounding Congolese minerals, including the proposed SEC and OECD regulations? What have advocates, legislators, and regulators gotten right and what have they gotten wrong?
Nest: I think these efforts are well-intentioned, but not especially well-thought out. This means they may not achieve their desired goal of bringing peace to the DRC.
- Relentless activism by the Enough Project, Global Witness and others have raised the profile of the Congo War and increased governments’ and the public’s willingness to focus on it – a good thing.
- The push by the SEC and OECD to increase transparency in the commodity chains that go into manufactured goods can also only be a good thing, as I think it is incumbent on us all to be aware of what we consume and where it comes from.
- Placing the reporting burden onto global corporations – rather than poor governments or artisanal miners – is reasonable.
- Activist efforts fail to take into account the significant number of conflicts in DRC that are not related to resources, e.g., conflict over land (for agriculture, not minerals) or for local political control. Restricting the export of coltan and other ‘conflict minerals’ might reduce profits to armed groups, but it will not have any effect on groups fighting for other reasons.
- The SEC regulations focus on minerals that have been handled by armed groups. The flaw in this is that the DRC army, which is one of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence, is not classified by the State Department as an ‘armed group’. Perversely, this means that tantalite that has passed through the DRC army’s hands could be imported into the US and legitimately labeled ‘conflict free’.
- Activists in rich countries who advocate for consumer boycotts of products that cannot be 100% verified as being free of coltan from Congo assume that western consumers remain the most important in the world, and therefore have the power to change corporations’ sourcing practices. Markets in rich countries for electronic goods will remain important, but in terms of size they have been overtaken by developing country markets, e.g., there are more mobile phones in Africa than the US, and China has double the number of internet subscribers than the US. Activists of the future must work out how to engage with developing country consumers and corporations (especially metals processing and manufacturing firms from China), and get them to care about the origin of commodities.