Coltan, Consumerism and Irony in Sub-Saharan Africa

A huge slap of irony hit me square in the face just now and I had to share it.  It may well have been pointed out elsewhere but if so, I genuinely haven’t seen it.

The world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for consumer electronics such as laptops, iphones etc… has led to coltan and other rare earth metals achieving a status rivaled only by diamonds as the world’s most lucrative minerals.  Large artisanal and conflict mining operations for coltan are based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contributing to the immiseration of the local populous and the hampering of development, environmental degradation and calcification of war-economies.  This is all well reported and, it must be said, certain efforts are being made to regulate against the unscrupulous sourcing of coltan and other rare earth elements in a similar manner to the halfhearted attempts to regulate the murky networks of conflict diamonds during the cataclysmic (and ongoing) African World War of the mid 1990’s which has killed, by some estimates, up to 5 million people.

At the other end of the chain, once Western (and now emerging market) consumers have drained, broken or upgraded their devices (often as a result of consumer capitalism’s masterstroke of planned obsolescence) they abandon them to the vast circulatory system of over 50 million tons of Electronic waste produced every year.   Vast quantities of this waste, much of which can be highly toxic, is then transported back to…..(you guessed it)  Sub-Saharan Africa to be broken down and scavenged for valuable parts (including, one presumes, rare earth minerals) .  The reality being that much of it is burned, causing (once again) environmental degradation and significant harm to the local population (photojournalist Pieter Hugo has exhaustively documented these toxic e-waste dumps and selections can be viewed in the Permanent Error section of his site here)

Neo-Colonialism has always been possessed of many faces.  It seems hard though, to imagine an example as cruel, cynical and vicious as this.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Coltan, Consumerism and Irony in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. MrWhisker

    there was an interesting bbc report from 2009 on this very point. plus, you might like to take a look at an earlier ‘In Focus’ report with interviews from the ISDR.
    British metals company AMC has repeatedly founded subsidiary companies to complicate the picture as to how exactly the minerals find there way from DRC source (often from militarised mines,) to European manufacturing companies. They still don’t have representation on the ground in DRC and deny connection with several supply companies, such as the DRC-based Panju, or state that they are merely small scale concerns. In fact, to take the example of Panju, it supplies millions of pounds worth of coltan annually.

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