Every day, for 14 to 16 hours, an estimated 2 million children are enslaved in underground mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and other African states. They dig on their hands and knees in river beds and underground mines, emerging with their bodies caked in mud. Why? Because they are being forced to dig for the basic raw material essential to production of Playstations, laptop computers, iPods, smart phones, DVD players, and the other electronic devices so vital to the privileged lives of Western consumers. That raw material is coltan and it is traded on world markets for $400 a pound. Coltan is short for columbite-tantalite, a black metallic ore used to manufacture tantalum capacitors, essential to a wide range of electronic products. Coltan is also highly toxic causing disease, poisoning, and birth defects in the areas in which it is mined. Slavery, and specifically child slavery, is motivated by the same things that have always motivated slavery – profit and privilege.
The mining industry is dependent on forced child labor. Children are essential workers because they can get into the smaller holes in dry river beds and in deeper mines. An elite few make a fortune from coltan. The workers get next to nothing. The large western computer and electronics manufacturers claim they don’t get coltan from the Congo. But that is at best disingenuous. The coltan mined through child labor is simply shipped to South Africa or Uganda. It is still illegally mined, slave-labor coltan, but western entrepreneurs engage in a tragic sleight of hand by buying it from secondary suppliers.
In 2013, 25.4% of the world’s supply of coltan came from Rwanda, 18.6% came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 23.7% came from other African countries. Simply put, two-thirds of the basic raw material necessary for our electronic-driven lives is largely produced by child slavery. Only 20% of the coltan necessary for Western production comes from recycling by the large corporations which dominate the industry. In fact, the UN Security Council has named 85 international corporations who purchase “blood” coltan, including Compaq, IBM, Nokia, and Siemens. Coltan is vital to the Western world economy. The simple truth is that the wireless world would cease to function without it. For example, Sony’s delays in getting its PlayStation 2 were almost entirely attributable to a shortage of coltan. The Carlisle Group, an equity firm based in the United States, made a fortune from coltan speculation.
A child slave mining coltan produces about a kilogram a day. That kilogram is worth $80 on the world market. The average “pay” for the miners is about 20 cents a day. Children die from disease, starvation, and unsafe working conditions. They are murdered by militias when they refuse to be enslaved. Four million children in the Congo are not in school, and 33% of them are nutritionally deprived and underweight. Life expectancy is 44 years, and 80% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
It’s not just child slavery which our electronics fetish fuels but regional wars as well. The primary issue in the ongoing and seemingly endless civil war in the Congo is control over access to and trade in coltan. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a mineral-rich country, including tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. Those natural resources could be used to expand the economy and vastly improve the lives of the people, but instead the first world demand for third world resources fuels war and slavery. Armed militias regularly force local villagers at gunpoint into the mines. People are enslaved through household or business debts. Militias abduct girls from villages as sex slaves in the mining zones.
So, the next time you check your latest Facebook post, join in a round of simulated killing in Call of Duty, or message your friends be careful not to get too much blood on your hands.
Profit kills no matter how much fun it is.
About Geology. 2006. “The scandal of coltan: A destructive black gold rush.” http://geology.about.com/od/conflictminerals/a/coltan.htm
Blood Coltan: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/blood-coltan/
Crane, A. 2013. “Modern slavery as a management practice.” Academy of Management Review 38, 1: 49–69.
Lavery, C. 2008. “Plight of African child slaves forced into mines – for our mobile phones.” Glasgow Sunday Mail. 7/6.
Manta, J. 2008. “Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo.” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 16, 1: 34–50.
Gary Potter, Ph.D.
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University