Rocks, hard places and Congo minerals
Is your mobile phone fueling a vicious civil war?
What should we be doing about these conflict minerals from the Congo, eh? Even MPs are raising Questions in the House  on the topic.
It's certainly true that some of the violence in Eastern Congo has been associated with access to minerals. What's a lot less certain is which way around the causality goes: is it people being violent to control the minerals trade or is the minerals trade a way to finance violence already inherent?
There are those who know the situation on the ground a lot better than you or I do who argue that it is the latter . There are campaigners  who insist that it is the former as well. Perhaps most importantly, why would anyone on a tech site be interested?
That last is the easiest to answer. The mineral that really has everyone hopping is “coltan”, the correct name for which is columbo tantalite, and which is the source of all that lovely tantalum which makes the capacitors which are such a vital part of just about every tech product.
It is possible to make them from niobium, although they'll be larger and less efficient, but unfortunately the columbo part (for niobium used to be called columbite by the Americans) is a major source of that metal. We could go back to aluminium, but then we're back to the world of brick-like phones.
So, it is a matter of some importance if rape, murder and torture are being used to supply us with part of the industry's lifeblood. It's akin to the recent arguments over “blood diamonds” although no one is saying it's exactly the same. The blood diamond wars (in Angola, Sierra Leone etc) seemed to be more about having a war to get control of the mines so as to be able to finance a war to get control of the mines. Eastern Congo has other conflicts. It wouldn't be at peace even if there were no minerals at all.
The general solution being offered is that somehow we should make sure that minerals mined under violent conditions, or mined to finance violence, should not be allowed to enter the supply chain. Dependent on the mineral this will be more or less effective. However - and I do hope I'm not thought too cynical - this seems to have morphed into something of a boondoggle.
As background, the four metals under discussions are known as the “3Ts plus gold”. Tantalum (from our coltan), tin (from cassiterite), tungsten (wolframite) and gold. To a certain level of accuracy (not a very high one, true), columbite, tantalite, cassiterite and wolframite are actually the same mineral. They've all got a bit of Nb, Ta, Sn, W in them, and we apply the different appellation dependent upon which is the major content. And yes, tin slags from cassiterite processing end up at a Ta plant and Ta plants always have tin extraction circuits.
There are serious problems with stopping tin or gold entering the supply chain: tin extraction, by definition, is a Bronze Age technology as spoil heaps all over Cornwall show us and gold older than that. If you've a forest (for charcoal), labour and can build a bloom furnace then you can extract both of them from the ores found in DR Congo. It's easy enough to then sell these, completely unidentifiable by now, roughly processed metals into the scrap supply chain.
So efforts concentrate on the coltan, for extraction of the interesting metals from that is not easy at all (wolframite is a very minor player indeed in all of this). And there's a certain political piquancy to being able to point to a mobile phone and screaming that “people died for that!”.
Getting to the choke points
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. ®