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The Trouble with Tantalum-by Suzannah Lipmann

At the Almeida Theatre in Islington (London) a play depicting life, trapped in the Congo conflict over minerals came to an end in June 2010, after a very successful run in the UK. ‘Ruined’, by Lynn Nottage has been a hit, despite its heavy, yet topical, subject matter.

The play focused on the female story as a means to express the issues surrounding the war-torn region, due to the mining and trade of conflict minerals (Tin, Tantalite/Columbite and Gold). Artistic representations of such issues, such as this play, are vital if they can reach beyond the layman and bring the metals industry, as well as the general public face to face with issues we seek to ignore or shrug off as ‘the ways of the world’. “‘WE HAVE FAILED’, ADMITS UN, AS FRESH WAVE OF CONGO RAPES EMERGES’”, was the headline in The Independent on September 9th 2010, which detailed the rape of 240 women in the mineral rich area of Eastern Congo. Why is it, this play asks, that women pay the price? Through the door of a brothel, we are told.

The local brothel situated on the outskirts of the forests where militia are battling for power over the mines and in turn, those living there, is where the play begins. The audience initially does not realise the scene is a brothel, as what is being bartered at first is cigarettes, but suddenly it is clear that while cigarettes are being exchanged, the real currency here is women…and indeed Coltan (Columbite/ Tantalite). Two, young, fragile and affected girls are donated to ‘Mama Nadi’, the owner of the brothel. Her reluctance to taking the girls in, is initially unclear, but once the man bringing them mentions that they have been banished from their villages as they are ‘ruined’, we soon understand, through the weight with which this term is used, what horrors it refers to.

Although the play mainly refers to the female victims of rape and mutilation as ‘ruined’, there are many shades of meaning to this word, which underlie the issues in this play. The rape of the land, people’s lives, as well as the female subjects; are all ‘ruined’. The reason why the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the centre of this conflict is due to its great mineral wealth. The minerals that are so coveted, predominantly by the booming electronics industry, the ores of which can literally be dug out of the ground with a shovel are the reason for the conflict. The choice for people who have been displaced from their land is limited, which is essentially to either dig these ores out of the ground at the point of a gun, or to wield the gun against others, themselves.

So what truly is the trouble with tantalum, what is it used for and why does it matter? Tantalum is the metal which is fuelling the electronics boom and has been doing so for the past decade and longer. Tantalum is a metal derived from the mineral tantalite, which through simple processing by a gravity separator is straight away saleable, for further processing on its way to becoming the 2 gram mobile-phone capacitors to smooth electrical flow. Yet, how many of us know or care that the atoms of tantalum may have started life, hauled from the ground by a child at the point of a gun, to end up in our mobile phones? That is the trouble with tantalum. If metal people have continually chosen to ignore these facts, what hope have the public? How few people today retain their mobile phone for more than a couple of years, despite its often suitable functioning? It is for this reason that plays, such as ‘Ruined’, exist; to rub our self-satisfied middle-class noses into the corruption of resource politics, and make these issues more accessible, by way of the female story.

As demand increases for our latest electronics, so too do government and rebel soldiers hone in on the opportunity to profit from the boom and fill the power vacuum provided by a lack of fair and stable government control. The ease with which these ores can be obtained is what is decimating the land and rainforest. The majority of the indigenous population would traditionally be farming that land, but once displaced either by ‘legitimate’ mining companies or by soldiers trying to take control of those areas, they are forced to participate in the mining of these minerals. The main issue here is that of land rights. People are being displaced from their land by virtue of foreign companies claiming stake to the same region, such as FTSE-100 company, Vedanta which in September 2010 was denied the right by the Indian Government to mine bauxite in Orissa. Had Vedanta been permitted to do so, indigenous peoples would have been removed from the mountain upon which they had worshipped for millennia.

However, these few victories for indigenous peoples hardly make-up for what has come before and what is still happening in areas such as the DRC, where the diaspora of farmers displaced from their land have little choice, than to participate in the mining and forced into the conflict fuelled by this. The knock-on effect is that there is an increase in violence against women, for sexual exploitation and as a means to express rights over land by different groups of fighting men, the women effectively become pawns. This point is raised in the US congress as per the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. “It is the sense of Congress that the exploitation and trade of conflict minerals originating in the DRC is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the Eastern DRC, particularly sexual and gender-based violence, and contributing to an emergency humanitarian situation therein” (January 5th 2010, Section 1502).
The increase in rapes and FGM (female genital mutilation) leave women frequently banished from their villages by their own families, as it would bring great dishonour. The children born of rape victims become victims themselves, forever stuck in the cycle of dishonour and shame, along with the stigma attached, likely to follow them through life. The women and [their] children become refugees, as once branded ‘ruined’ and sent away from their villages they have little option in terms of where to live.

What is the situation today? As violence and demand escalates, so too does the need for responsibility. For years, ignorance was bliss, but no one along the supply chain can claim ignorance any longer. The UN has recognised the pressure it is under to contain and control operations which are fuelling this conflict. In turn industry is also taking a stance, the EICC (Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition) set up to promote a code of conduct for global electronics supply chains, planned visits this year as well as last year to assess seven of the world’s largest tantalum smelters in the world, which collectively represent 80% the global tantalum supply, in order to assess which practice ethically. Since this and the drawing up early 2010 of the ‘Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act’ indeed many electronics companies have taken the lead in ceasing to source from any mine or trader who may be involved with material originating in the conflict zones.

Some say however, that this will have a worse effect on those embroiled in the conflict, but industry cannot carry on sourcing from DRC. Today, the effect on industry is that the markets are very bullish and more material is being offered out of China. This knock-on effect by banning conflict material could be that it is actually just exiting via a different route out of Africa, ending up in China and then exiting China, a country with a less than clean track record regarding ethical mining and labour practices. But while it is easy to blame the inadequate peace-keeping forces of the UN, the anaemic Congo Government, the rival militias and boy soldiers for allowing the rapes, the child labour, the daily massacres, the prostitution, the mining industry – how about blaming ourselves? Blame however, is pointless; it is responsibility which should be exercised throughout the supply-chain all the way through to us, the end-user with the iphone or blackberry.

In light of these issues, what is our responsibility within the metals trade? To only buy from non-conflict zones, in the hope that standards of practice will have to be raised, and by default put pressure on governments of countries such as DRC, Uganda and Rwanda to implement fair codes of conduct. However, putting pressure on African countries, already weakened by the exploitation of the West, is not enough. It is to our own society and indeed to ourselves that we must look to for practical actions that might assist to right the wrongs. At the top of this list should be the aspiration to treat other communities as we should like to be treated. The UNs focus on conflict zone minerals has shown us that these are communal actions that can have some positive effect, although equally there is a lot to be desired. Metal merchants and miners who would salve their consciences with the view that buying any minerals was ‘creating jobs’ is simply not good enough. There is a case that no minerals should be hauled from the Earth in countries where equitable laws on the surface do not exist.

The irony, with regard to Tantalite/ Coltan, is that this industry is almost the only minerals industry where a regime of fair trade minerals could apply, as unlike almost all other mining, tantalite/ coltan is extremely small-scale and artisanal. What is needed is a fair-trade metals movement which works with cooperatives on the ground to return revenue to rightful indigenous owners and not to warlords or exploitative and powerful foreign mining houses. There is hope as per article in the London Metal Bulletin, quoting Talison (the currently closed Western Australian miner of Tantalite) that “…companies are developing programs to ensure the money does not find its way back to those involved with the conflict” (MB 20/06/10). It will take a very enlightened company to establish such cooperatives, but let us only hope that what has been achieved in coffee and cocoa shows that it is possible. The ultimate irony is that the mobile phone which is bringing information and democracy to rural areas of Africa depends on tantalum derived from blood tantalite. Similarly, in scene one of the play, the travelling salesman Christian, ingratiates himself with mama (the brothel owner) by giving her a box of Belgian chocolates, with the words, “That’s what the good life in Belgium tastes like”. As with cocoa, so with tantalite – the product of African labour is so rarely enjoyed by its people, displaced from their land and alienated from their labour.

Suzannah Lipmann – 2 November 2010