Terrible Tantalite Mining
Tantalite is a black, heavy mineral little known outside high technology circles but a short-lived spike in its price two years ago sparked an environmentally damaging mining rush in central Africa
Terrible Tantalite Mining
You pick up your mobile without thinking and use it several times a day but would you be so free and easy with it if you knew that part of the hardware used in its construction could be causing environmental chaos in central Africa? It’s all down to Tantalum, a metal you might not even have known existed but which is highly valued by the manufacturers of mobiles.
Tantalite is a black, heavy mineral little known outside high technology circles but a short-lived spike in its price two years ago sparked an environmentally damaging mining rush in central Africa. Tantalum’s strength, chemistry and electronic properties make it valuable in many hi-tech applications including cellular telephones and laptop computers. Massive worldwide demand for consumer electronics put a strain on the supply of tantalite ore. Prices soared to hundreds of dollars per kilogram.
America was once a mining nation but those days are gone. One kind of mining that everyone in the USA remembers was sparked by the California gold rush of 1849. This might be a cherished period of American history but while it created great it is in some respects seen today as a scandalous disaster for the environment. Mercury poisoning, deforestation, disruption of rivers and widespread crime came with the gold. It wasn’t many years before Gold Rush excesses led to the conservation movement being formed..
“Coltan” is the industry slang for this metal in central Africa and it is the mining method which causes the comparisons with US history. Dense tantalite sand forms placer deposits that can be mined with pans and sluices little different from the low-tech devices used by the California '49ers. All you have to do is cut down the jungle, dig up the ground, and wash all the dirt in the river. At the end of one day you have a pile of dead trees, a large hole in the ground, a muddy river and one handful of shiny black coltan.
Tantalite, which is an oxide mineral, a variable blend of iron, manganese, tantalum and niobium and it's twice as dense as ordinary minerals. It occurs in granite pockets where the deep-seated molten rock once crystallized in old, deeply eroded continental crust. Western Australia, Canada, Brazil, and sub-Saharan Africa are regions of ancient crust that yield tantalite today.
Central Africans are so poor that thousands rushed to the jungle to mine coltan. Prostitution and price-gouging were rife in this war-torn region, where armies moved in to take over the trade. Miners raped pristine forests even indide the national parks, destroying the land and shooting gorillas, okapis and other rare species for food.
In 2001 the friends of gorillas around the world rose in action, reporting these disturbing events to the world. The United Nations, concerned about the armies as well as the wildlife, stepped in too. And the tantalite industry called on its members "to take care to obtain their raw materials from lawful sources. Members should refrain from purchasing materials from regions where either human welfare or wildlife are threatened."
The world economic slump in 2001 meant that demand for consumer electronics fell, and with it the price of tantalite so the frenzied activity died away to some extent. However, when you consider that the single handful of coltan mentioned earlier could be worth two months wages to a central African it’s easy to see why they’ll continue to mine for it.
It may not seem that important in your daily life to consider the plight of the African gorilla but then again what price can you put on an endangered species. Just think it over next time you think about replacing your mobile for a newer version. Hang on to the old one for a little longer. You could be helping to restore the natural balance somewhere in the world and wouldn’t that seem worthwhi