Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Blood iPhones?

In the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, there was a serious push in the west to stop the financing of rogue African militia by controlling “Blood Diamonds”. I’ve long been cynical of this approach. At the time, I was working in diamond research, and I saw far too many people leap on the blood diamond bandwagon as a way of getting additional research funding to direct to their pet projects. The fact that the program was eventually taken over by DeBeers as a marketing tool for solidifying their monopoly didn’t help either. And most importantly, I felt that diamond consumers were looking at the bloodless diamonds as a way of washing their hands of African problems and turning their backs on the continent.

Well, a decade on, and things are looking up for the diamond-producing parts of Africa. The civil wars in Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are over. Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa are developing, and the latter country will be hosting the World Cup this year. But outside the cratonic cores of the continent, atrocities continue.

Yesterday, New York Times blogger columnist Nicolas Kristof wrote a heartbreaking story about the mass killings and rapes that are still occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among the various proposals he listed for stopping the violence was, “we need a U.S.-brokered effort to monitor the minerals trade from Congo so that warlords can no longer buy guns by exporting gold, tin or coltan.”

So, what on earth is “coltan”? It’s a industry term for columbite-tantalum concentrate. Columbite is the ore of niobium, which is used in steels and high strength alloys. Tantalum, which is geochemically similar and thus found in the same deposits, is used mostly in capacitors for compact electronic devices such as personal computers and mobile phones. So the purchase of the device you are using to read this blog may have financed rape, mutilation, and genocide in central Africa.

From a technical point of view, identifying blood tantalite and niobate minerals should be much easier than dealing with diamonds. These minerals generally have enough uranium to allow uranium-lead geochronology, and are far more chemically complex than diamond. The main suppliers of tantalum (Brazil and Australia) are not Machiavellian DeBeers-like monopolists. Instead, they work using long-term, fixed-price contracts that should make identifying buys from the spot market relatively easy compared to the Byzantine marketing of diamonds. So the problem is tractable.

As it turns out, there are groups working to address this problem. http://www.enoughproject.org/conflict-minerals has links to proposed legislation currently in front of congress, as well as letters to the manufacturers of various electronic devices asking the companies to buy fair-trade HFSE’s. Just about the only thing they don’t have is a clever viral phone app to spread the word. But if any of you readers are clever programmers, why not spend the evening fighting genocide instead of reading blogs?


Bao Gong said...


The main problem I see here, is that it's so much easier to speak to the average american about diamonds than to explain that 'Ta' from the periodic table. (Although, the politics of cratonic Africa presents a perfect opportunity for alternative intro to geo courses..)

I would say 'you rock', but I'm above such cheesiness, so I'll just say thanks!

Chuck said...

What about "Blood capacitors"? That way at least they think they might be getting into some sort of a vampire star trek mashup.