The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is rich in natural resources – its untapped mineral deposits are valued. 24 trillion US dollars. Gold, diamonds, cobalt and zinc are among them.
Another strategic mineral mined in the DRC is coltan – a name derived from “kolumbit tantalite”. In 2021, the DRC’s crop production amounted to an estimate 700 tonsmaking the Central African country the world’s largest crop producer by far.
Coltan is essential for the manufacture of all modern technological devices. The mineral is refined into tantalum powder, which is used to make heat-resistant capacitors in laptops, mobile phones, and other high-end electronic devices.
The global coltan market was assessed by 1,504.81 million US dollars in 2019. It is expected to reach 1,933.92 million US dollars by the end of 2026, growing by 5.58% annually between 2021 and 2026.
But activists, journalists and academics have found a link between cultural exploitation and large-scale environmental degradation, human rights abuses, violence and death.
This can be seen in violation of environmental laws, child labor on mines, and complicity of mining companies in the abuses of populations at risk.
In mine new study, I asked two research questions: what damage does coltan mining and trade do to the environment and local people in the northeastern DRC? And what can the DRC government and the private sector do to ensure a responsible source of coltan?
Coltan exploitation destroys ecosystems and affects wildlife habitats. Animals are displaced from their natural habitat, leaving them vulnerable to poachers. The chemicals used in washing coltan are polluting water bodies and are harmful to humans and animals.
My study raises awareness of the implications of this illegal mining and suggests multi-interventions to stop environmental crime.
The information for my analysis came from a quality field survey, legislation and UN reports on extracurricular conflicts in the DRC.
Data also came from interviews with officials from the Center for Certification, Experience and Evaluation, the Ministry of Mines, civil society coalitions, the Congo Environment Agency and non-governmental organizations in North and South Kivu.
My study conceives of environmental crime as activities that violate environmental law and cause serious harm or risk to the environment, human health, or both.
Coltan is mined through a fairly primitive process. Miners work together digging large craters in channels, scraping soil off the surface to reach the coltan underground.
The indistinct exploitation of coltan dramatically affects environmental biodiversity and disrupts ecosystems around mines.
According to data available on the Global Forest Watch a platform managed by the World Resource Institute, the DRC has lost 8.6% of its forest cover since 2000. One of the main causes of deforestation in the DRC is mining.
Observers with whom I spoke note that environmental impact assessments are rarely made prior to crop mining. Craft miners and foreign companies even violate places of historical heritage such as Kahuzi Biega National Park.
The first effect of coltan mining is when miners remove vegetation and topsoil. This increases the rate of erosion.
Most of the craft coltan miners work in places where there is no state control. They take as much coltan as they can without any regulation. For example, during the Ministry of Mining recommended that miners dig no deeper than 30 meters below the surface, they sometimes dig as deep as 200 meters.
Environmental activists in Bukavu confirm that logging has caused the loss of trees. This is known to destroy ecosystems, decreases the carbon supply, interrupts the photosynthesis process and affects air quality. It also affects habitats.
For example, North and South Kivu provinces contain most of the DRC’s coltan. Kahuzi Biega National Park, one of the last refuges for the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, encompasses both provinces. Coltan mining has destroyed much of the gorillas’ natural habitat, leaving them vulnerable to poachers. The population of eastern lowland gorillas in the park disintegrated from 8,000 in 1991, when coltan mining began there, to about 40 in 2005. The current population is now. assessed at 250.
The process of mineral separation, screening and sorting is done manually by washing at streams and rivers. The chemicals used are polluting water bodies and are harmful to aquatic life. The chemicals can also produce radioactive substances that are harmful to human health.
The activities of the coltan miners and the related businesses are exploitative and poor communities. Observers note that coltan mining companies rarely compensate affected communities by implementing development programs, which is a legal requirement under the mining laws.
At Mwenga in Shabunda, 50 artisan miners died in September 2020 as a result of coltan-mining-related activities.
Holes dug by artisanal miners are rarely covered after mining has ceased. And landslides caught miners underground.
Conflicts between members of the artisanal mining cooperative Cooperamma and the Coltan mining company SMB have led to violence this claimed lives on the Rubaya mine in North Kivu.
The DRCs mining code was reformed in 2017 to punish the use of child labor or the sale of ore mined by children. However much of the country’s coltan is extracted by the work of super 40,000 child miners. They operate in hazardous conditions such as washers and shovels.
Making adults in a dangerous environment, child miners face the risks of ill health, harassment and abuse. They may either drop out of school or never have the opportunity to attend.
The amount of coltan mined by child labor remains unexplained, unaccounted for and untraceable. It is traded in the underground economy and channeled into the Coltan global supply chain through smuggling, counterfeiting and collusion.
The approach to extract reform in the DRC is currently inadequate to address the human and environmental damage associated with crop mining.
My study provides a specific recommendations to address the identified challenges.
The government needs to reform the Congo Environment Agency to enforce environmental impact assessments and implement environmental management plans.
Civil society organizations should train and equip observatory groups at the local level to monitor and report on coltan mines. This will provide a shady report to compare with reviews done by state agents.
In line with global best practices upstream companies that mine and refine coltan are advised to mitigate the environmental risks associated with their operations.
- La full report was first published by the ENACT project, a partnership between the Institute for Security Studies, Interpol and the EU-funded Global Transnational Crime Initiative.