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Rocks, hard places and Congo minerals

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The campaign to stop the purchase and processing of coltan from DR Congo has in fact been rather successful already for exactly this reason of the difficulty of extracting the Ta and Nb. It really is an onerous task, so much so that there are only a handful of plants around the world capable of it. Cabot in the US, HC Starck in Germany, ULBA in Kazakhstan, a couple in China: there's one more in Brazil but they only process their own ore.

So we've a natural choke point in the supply chain and sensibly, campaigners have been concentrating upon those choke points. Here's Cabot's response to such pressure for example. Our problem here is that such pressure depends upon those processors a) giving a shit and b) being trustworthy. For example, if, just as an example, ULBA says they don't, no, of course not, use material from the DRC, can we trust them when dealing with them?

Which is why, despite such pressure on the processors, coltan is still mined in the DRC and still processed. Not because we cannot reach some processors, but because we cannot reach them all effectively.

The solution to this problem being offered by the Enough Project (who are the people who have driven much of this concern over the years) is that there should be an auditing chain. For the price of only 1 cent (or $10m a year in aggregate) for each unit the phone makers can employ auditors to make sure that none of their capacitors contain tantalum that has come from the DRC.

Sounds like a plan, except this is where I think it's morphed into a boondoggle. For I can't see how or why such auditing can be effective. We cannot look at a capacitor and tell where the Ta came from: we cannot look at a piece of Ta and tell where the ore came from. We can however tell where coltan comes from, as a result of this project. (Ignore their estimate that 50 per cent of the world's Ta comes from DRC: it's more like eight per cent.)

We can, through such auditing of the paperwork, track our capacitor back to a coltan processor, yes, but we're reliant upon said processor to tell us the truth about their coltan. And given that we cannot trust them (for the obvious reason that some of them are still using DRC material) then, well, what have we actually achieved?

As far as I can see $10m's worth of nice jobs auditing paperwork for people connected to the Enough Project. Something which does indeed make me a very cynical person and quite possibly a bad one as well, but I simply cannot see how it will be effective.

There's no particular shortage of tantalum around. One major Australian producer went bust (Sons of Gwalia who mine the wonderfully named “wodginite”) and Cabot's own Canadian mine is on a care and maintenance basis. We can certainly get our desired metal from other places (including Madagascar, Nigeria and all sorts of other places). But simple beancounting tells us that the lowest cost producer (which DRC is, given the methods and labour rates used) will always be the last to close down: increasing supply and lowering the price means that the highest cost producers close first, not the lowest.

All of which leads me to a rather sad, and not at all cynical, conclusion. This really might, this mining in Eastern Congo by violence, be one of those problems which really doesn't have a solution. At least, not a solution that we can apply outside that poor benighted country. Copping pennies off electronics manufacturers isn't going to make any difference: an outbreak of peace, love and understanding would help, but not much else. ®

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