A dirty little secret
of the electronics industry, Coltan has been linked to as much misery and strife in Africa
as conflict diamonds
. Coltan is the ore from which tantalum
is made, and tantalum is what makes our cell phones so small by enabling the manufacture of extremely tiny capacitor
However, there is no regulated trade in the material. Manufacturers don't care much who they buy their coltan from, and so it falls into the same void of conscience that gold, timber, and diamonds find themselves in. In the Congo, entire communities have been uprooted by armies, militias, and crime syndicates from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi who are after riches and access to roads to transport them. Murder, rape, and brutality are the way of life for the forced laborers who work under horrible conditions to extract the mineral.
To obtain coltan, one must dig large quantities of earth and wash the dirt to separate the lighter soil from the denser coltran. The resulting black mud is then sold to processors, who extract tantalite from the material. The United Nations is trying to institute sanctions against coltan exploitation, but are having limited success.