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Coltan, War, and the Congo

Coltan’s Transformative Impact on the Global Economy

Written by:  Shawn Woods, (Public Affairs and Policy Management Student).

Nominated by:  Professors A. Diptee & D. Kinsey.

In an age where owning technology is not only normal but also necessary, the need for compact yet efficient, accessible yet low cost technology is, in a sense, indispensable. One material, in particular, has become foundational for manufacturing these final products. Columbite-tantalite, better known as coltan, has become the cornerstone of the digital age from which nearly all technology is built upon (Mantz, 2008, p. 48). Coltan is a mineral used as an electrical conductor and is vital for most electronic devices ranging from phones and computers to airplanes and military equipment. However, despite its role in technological advancement, the method in which coltan is produced has been critical to the perpetuation of war and state instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Montague, 2002, p. 104).

With the commencement of the digital age in the 1990s, the market for coltan increased significantly (Montague, 2002, p. 105). As countries all around the globe sought greater and more innovative ways to manufacture technology, coltan, more than ever, became a highly demanded lucrative trade item. However, extraction and trade of this item has not come without a price. In central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has fallen victim to a raging war fuelled by the global demand for electronics (Kinniburgh, 2014, p. 61). Beginning in the 1990s, the DRC entered into a conflict between armed forces in Rwanda, Uganda, and domestic Congolese rebels. This war, which did not initially commence because of the vast mineral wealth of the DRC, was largely contributed to and sustained by the mineral coltan (Moyroud & Katunga, 2002, p. 174). Mining coltan has extended the conflict as militias are using the wealth generated from the trade of coltan to finance their military agendas. These conflicts consequently threaten Congolese sovereignty.

Like most goods, the production of coltan in the Congo has been determined by its global demand. The coltan industry has resulted in what Gunder Frank calls “underdevelopment” (Frank, 1966, p. 18). Frank’s theory is that metropoles, or ‘developed’ countries, establish colonial or imperialist relations with less ‘developed’ countries and exploit them for their natural resources and cheap labor. In doing so the metropoles are actively contributing to the underdevelopment of these nations, thereby ensuring that they will never become ‘developed’. In the case of coltan in the DRC, this theory has much merit; the supply and demand of coltan in the DRC only has only further impoverished the Congolese people.

Furthermore, it can be argued that coltan has become the “blood diamond of the digital age” (Mantz, 2008, p. 36). The market for coltan has emerged at the expense of the locals who produce it. For want of other employment options, Congolese workers submit to the deplorable working conditions on the mines and are faced with the pervasive violence of the rebel forces. The war, fruit of the global demand for coltan, has greatly contributed to Congolese impoverishment. (Kinniburgh, 2014, p. 64.) Nearly all coltan from the DRC is illegally traded; it is extracted by means of violence, illegally exported by militant groups and sold to various multi-national corporations. These parties then sell it to other buyers around the globe until it is finally used in the manufacturing of the final product (Mantz, 2008, p. 42). The revenue generated by this trade serves only to subvert the Congolese state, thereby hindering the welfare of the local population (Montague, 2002, p. 107).

Today, coltan has impacted the global economy in two primary ways: first it acts as a vital component for technology and it provides opportunities for future research and technological innovation. Secondly, the continued exploitation of coltan by industrialized countries has increased the gap between the ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, thereby weakening the political and economic institutions of the DRC (Montague, 2002, p. 116). Simply stated, coltan has become a means by which armed militias and foreign armed forces can undermine the Congolese state. These opposing forces threaten the Congo’s right to sovereignty and their capacity to bring about progressive political and economic growth (Montague, 2002, p. 107). Because of this continued subversion by foreign forces on countries like the DRC, undeveloped countries will not be able to create the needed self-sustaining growth to stand as an independent nation.

The positive and negative consequences of the demand for coltan on both the global economy and the Congolese state are vast. The emergence and exploitation of the market for coltan has materialized at the expense of the Congolese, contributed to the underdevelopment of the DRC’s economy, and has taken part in sustaining over a decade of conflict and violence. Possessing 80% of the world’s coltan supply, Africa (particularly the DRC) is vital for the continued growth of the global economy (Mantz, 2008, p. 1). It is for this reason that nations like the DRC must be given the capacity to regulate legitimate mining policies and reverse the effects of this kind of exploitation.


Frank, A. G. (1966). The Development of Underdevelopment. Boston, MA: New England Free Press.

Kinniburgh, C. (2014). “Beyond ‘Conflict Minerals’: The Congo’s Resource Curse Lives On. Dissent. Spring 2014.

Mantz, J. W. (2008). “Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo.” Social Anthropology, 16(1).

Montague, D. (2002). “Stolen Goods: Coltan and Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” SAIS Review, 22 (2).

Moyroud, C., & Katunga, J. (2002). “Coltan Exploration in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).” In J. Lind, & K. Sturman, Scarcity and Surfeit: The Ecology of Africa’s Conflicts (pp. 159-181). Pretoria, South Africa: Institute for Security Studies.



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