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From Congo through Chicago: Understanding the Life-Cycles of Metal Commodities in the Global Economy Developed by Brian Ashby. Wolframite mining, Maniema Province, Democratic Republic of Congo Photo by: Julien Harneis. Mid-sized scrap yard, Englewood, South Side Chicago

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From Congo through Chicago:Understanding the Life-Cycles of Metal Commodities in the Global EconomyDeveloped by Brian Ashby

Wolframite mining, Maniema Province,

Democratic Republic of Congo

Photo by: Julien Harneis

Mid-sized scrap yard, Englewood,

South Side Chicago

Photo by: Brian Ashby


Adapted from Brian Ashby’s presentation originally presented at the June 22-25, 2009University of Chicago Summer Teacher Institute:

“Understanding the Global Economy: Bringing the World Market into your Classroom”

the drc has important and rare metals for cell phones and other electronics
The DRC has Important andRare Metals for Cell Phonesand Other Electronics
  • To make cell phones “weightless” and smaller, metals called tantalum and cassiterite are needed. They are used to make miniature high-voltage capacitors for circuits.
  • Nearly every cell phone, PDA, laptop, and video game console uses these metals.

Wolframite mining, Maniema Province,

Democratic Republic of Congo

Photo by: Julien Harneis

northeast drc has 64 80 of the world s reserves of tantalum and 33 of cassiterite
Northeast DRC has 64-80% of the World’sReserves of Tantalum and 33% of Cassiterite
  • Tantalum is found in columbite-tantalite ore, and is also known as Coltan.
  • Cassiterite is a main source of the world’s tin, which is used in solder(which is melted to join metal surfaces).
  • The #1 export destination for the DRC’s tantalum is the U.S.
  • The U.S. imports 90% of its tantalum.

Refined tantalum from coltan

Photo: Stephen Hutcheon, The Age, 5/8/09

The DRC also has large deposits (amounts) of silver, zinc, manganese, uranium, exotic timbers, coal, oil, and coffee.
why is this child mining in the drc
Why is this child mining in the DRC?

Ex-child soldier mining gold, Mongbwalu, Northeastern DRC, 2004

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale / Photo Agency VII


Mining is performed by local people responding to gold-rush conditions.

  • Mining is performed using hands, pickaxes, plastic buckets, and troughs made of bark, in alluvial deposits (riverbed silt) or open pits.
  • Even after taxation, coltan miners can make up to $50 a day. The current average living standards in the DRC are still below $1 per day!
  • Many children work in the mines.

Gold dealer, Bunia, Ituri Province

Photo: Riccardo Gangale

the mines
The Mines

Rebel-controlled mines are dug deep into inaccessible rainforests, national parks, and indigenous peoples’ territories.

Flows of goods and people are controlled by lengthy guarded footpaths and small private airstrips.

Human chain in Chudja open-pit gold mine, Northeastern DRCPhoto: Finbarr O’Reilly / Reuters


The demand for these rare metals has lead to…


The war was not originally fought over natural resources. However, after new mining operations began, domestic and foreign rebel groups have continued to fight for control of infrastructure and contracts, and ultimately for money.

Photo taken by Spyros Demetriou

a multinational war
A Multinational War
  • In exchange for mining allowance, the Congolese government was aided by the armies of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Libya, and Sudan.
  • Against them, the armies of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi seized large territories in the East, and supported numerous rebel groups. The conflict is referred to as the African World War.
who is dying for this war
Who is dying for this war?
  • An estimated 5.4 millionpeople have died since the Second Congo War began in 1998, the deadliest conflict since World War II.
  • More than half have died since the war’s official end in 2003, and an estimated 90% of these total deaths are from disease and starvation.
  • More than 1,000 people dailyare still dying avoidable deaths in the DRC.
  • 30,000 rapes have been reported in the DRC each year for the past 4 years. The unreported number could be 4 times higher.

Sources: International Rescue Committee, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International

the soldiers
The Soldiers

Mai Mai child soldier, Kanyabyongo,

North Kivu, 2009

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale / Photo Agency VII

  • The DRC conflict has employed the highest number of child soldiers in the world -- up to 40% of rebel and government forces at the war’s height, with more than 10,000 yet to be de-mobilized.
  • Official government corruption leaves Congolese soldiers rarely paid. As a consequence, they pillage rather than protect local populations. Commanders conspire with rebel leaders to gain mining concessions.
transporting metals out of drc
Transporting Metals out of DRC
  • In DRC, as in all of Africa, networks of mainly Ukrainian and South African pilots charge a premium to carry goods via small Soviet-era planes across remote areas.
  • In addition to ferrying illicit natural resources, these transport companies are linked to arms smuggling, sanctions busting, drug trafficking, and coup attempts.

Photos: Guy Tillim / Vanity Fair 6/13/07

who buys the metals
Who Buys the Metals?
  • Contracts are made in DRC mining centers by mainly Chinese, Lebanese, and Indian buyers; bribes are made to truck minerals across the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia; they find their way to ports in Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa; are refined in the U.S., United Kingdom, and Europe; and enter the global supply chain via markets in China and Russia.
  • Having passed through so many middleman, it is nearly impossible for multinational companies such as Sony, Apple, Nokia, Dell, and Ericsson to verify their suppliers’ claims of their materials’ countries of origin, let alone certification of mining practices. Major tantalum processors such as US-based Kemet and Cabot claim to have ceased buying from the DRC since 2001, however, the trade hasn’t stopped.

With Demand for Cell Phones…comes demand for the materials that make up the cell phones.With demand for anything…comes money to those who can provide the materials needed.

how is the demand for cell phones increasing
How is the Demand for Cell Phones Increasing?

In 2005, worldwide mobile phone sales surpassed 200 million every 3 months – production equivalent to one every 25 seconds.

In 2005, the U.S. consumers typically replaced their cell phones once every 18 months. In Western Europe, once a year.

In 2007, total mobile subscribers surpassed 2 billion – that equals one phone for every 3 people on the planet.

Currently, despite take-back programs, less than 1% of retired phones are recycled in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it is not possible for human rights-conscious consumers to specifically boycott any of the complex array of minerals found in small quantities inside their electronics.

Sources: US Geological Survey, UN Global Policy Forum

what is the us doing
What is the US doing?

4/23/2009--Sponsored by Senator Samuel Brownback R-(KS).

Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 -Declares it is U.S. policy to promote peace and security in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by supporting the efforts of the DRC, other governments in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and the international community to. THIS IS STILL A BILL HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED

Co-sponsors: Sen. Mark Begich [D, AK], Sen. Barbara Boxer [D, CA], Sen. Roland Burris [D, IL], Sen. Benjamin Cardin [D, MD], Sen. Richard Durbin [D, IL], Sen. Russell Feingold [D, WI], Sen. Charles Schumer [D, NY], Sen. Roger Wicker [R, MS]

global citizenship
Global Citizenship
  • Awareness -- Stay aware of what is going on in the DRC and in other countries. Follow the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and write your congressmen in support of the Act.
  • Recycle – Recycle your old batteries, computers, cell phones, and other e-waste. Recycling old e-waste will cut down on the demand to mine for more minerals.
  • Be conscious of what aspects of your life involve other people, countries, etc. Consider what you really need.