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back to article Rocks, hard places and Congo minerals

What should we be doing about these conflict minerals from the Congo, eh? Even MPs are raising Questions in the House on the topic. It's certainly true that some of the violence in Eastern Congo has been associated with access to minerals. What's a lot less certain is which way around the causality goes: is it people being …

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Coat

columbo tantalite?

That would be columbite-tantalite, a mixture of two related minerals; columbite ((Fe, Mn)(Nb, Ta)2O6) and tantalite (Fe,Mn)(Ta,Nb)2O6).

Coat for obvious reasons - 2lb geological hammer in the right pocket.

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Anonymous Coward

"we cannot look at a piece of Ta and tell where the ore came from"

Some type of isotope analysis?

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Paris Hilton

Isotope analysis

Virtually a no go here. Tantalum is nearly all a single isotope (181) with just one part in 8000 of that unique oddity, the only naturally occurring excited state tantalum-180m, supposedly radioactive but with such a long half-life that nobody has ever detected its decay. (By contrast the ground state, tantalum-180, is highly radioactive with a half-life of just 8 hours.)

Paris because she may bring about an excited state in some of us.

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This still leaves isotope analysis of the impurities

Depends how purified Ta really is. As with most stuff it is the impurities that provide the fingerprint, not the main substance

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Surely

It would be easier to track and audit where the various minerals came from - anything that can't be positively tracked to a known good source can be inferred to come from the DRC.

It wouldn't take long to pinpoint those plants that are using 'untrackable' ores.

ttfn

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FAIL

You've completely missed the point

That's the other side of the same coin - if you cannot tell that the minerals came from DRC, how can you tell that the minerals /didn't/ come from DRC?

Read the article again. The papertrail cannot be trusted, rendering any audit worthless.

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Bronze badge
Coat

@columbo tantalite?

Just in case you wondered what the difference was, the former is manganese rich and lighter than the other which is Iron Rich.

The hammer fell out of the coat pocket and landed on my foot. Still I have my trusty 16oz hammer.

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Coltan conundrum...

When looking at conflicts in africa remember this... there are NO industrial scale arms manufacturing facilities in Africa apart from South Africa... these weapons cost money and those poor africans have to exchange something for the money to buy the weapons... so the questions to look at... is

a) what is being giving in return for money OR weapons...

b) what happens with the stuff that is given... who takes it and where does it end up...

Some more background

This area of the world has been at the hub of a lot of conflict in Africa, mainly for the cobalt... one BIG uses (apart from delft blue porcelian, and of course mobile phone) for cobalt is in high temp steel alloys, like those used in missile engines and jet turbine blades... (in the coldwar this was the USA's only source!! as there are smaller deposits) have look at which countries produce those... the history of these conflict revolve mainly around cobalt the other minerals are also important lots of copper in the south katanga/shaba province around 70-80% of our planets cobalt is in this country... During the Angolan war the Benguela railway line was cut by SA and UNITA forces, this was the only rail access to Katanga, from then onwards ALL the USA's cobalt supplies from that area flowed through Zambia into Zimbabwe(this is BTW of od Mr Mugabe's revenue streams letting those trucks pass safely through), and South Africa (where it gets extracted and concentrated) and out to the US... NOW the biggest demand is from China.

The same area also contained a lot of uranium all the uranium that was used in the Hiroshima bomb came from the Congo... supplied to the US by a Belguim company, RTZ also had some fingers in the pie

It is a very rich (and traumatised) chunk of the planet...

#R;

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Silver badge

Return to brick-like phones

I'm not sure it would be altogether bad idea - I still think that Ericsson SH888 was the best phone ever. I would still be using it if I could have a reliable supply of batteries... The modern phones are far too thin and too light to be held comfortably and have too many crap features I don't need.

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Anonymous Coward

Sadly,

my TH688 (The TH bit signifies 900MHz GSM and DECT as the second "band", I kid you not) died the other day. I wouldn't mind using it if it hadn't died and with new batteries and a replacement for the cracked antenna. If I have to I'll probably try and find replacement batteries for the 6310 instead.

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"the world of brick-like phones"

Or tablets, as we call them in the 21st Century.

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Bronze badge

@Return to brick-like phones

I feel the same way about my 6310i.

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Just a question

It would be nice to have been told why the DRC is the lowest cost producer.

After all primitive production methods in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a war zone is not much of a start.

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Anonymous Coward

easy,

slave labour

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Silver badge

Slave labour?

Probably not the only reason. They'd have to have good ores as well.

Simple economics: if someone paid x can mine quantity y in one shift, and someone paid 10x can mine 11y in one shift, then the men earning 10x can put the other mine out of business. (All other factors being equal of course). Higher productivity relates strongly to ore richness and to how much other rock has to be removed to get at the ore, although high-quality mechanisation and automation can also be significant.. For bulk materials like iron or copper ore, transport costs are very significant, but for small amounts of valuable product, they're not.

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FAIL

er...

Slave labour tends to be unpaid.

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Anonymous Coward

Slaves have to eat, too.

So that's payment /in natura/ instead of in coin, or maybe you'd call it upkeep.

On that note, I wonder how slaves in ancient Rome managed to buy themselves free. It tended to take a while, on the order of decades, but it did happen. I don't suppose a stray historian could shed some light?

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Seriously?

"It would be nice to have been told why the DRC is the lowest cost producer"

Possibly somewhat lower labour costs and a little less requirement for spending on Health & Safety overheads than, say, Australia or Canada?

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Looking at the question asked...

One can look back to the 1970's when the UK was importing and enriching Namibian uranium, supplied by the Apartheid government and Rio Tinto Zinc and how the uranium was laundered with the aid of French company... Tony Benn was mighty upset after having been duped by RTZ he claimed, because they apparently never stated that the uranium came from Namibia.

So now we have a similar situation, the difference being that the DRC is *nearly* the sole provider of cobalt, and I seem to recall there are only a few smelters capable of producing the high temperature alloys. I see the katanga (alone) area produces 40% of the total worlds cobalt. My guess is the Kivu province's contribution is not even factored in as it is all illegally (I use the term legal here in its broadest sense) mined. The problem is will WE be prepared to pay more for our electronic gadgets? I think the situation will change towards 2012 when China complete the Benguela railway line, then they have access to one of africa's treasure chests...

As an asside there is also some oil in the north of the DRC, on the Sudanese/Ugandan, the area where the LRA operate.

#R;

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Desperation, obviously is the answer

@Al 18

When you are desperate enough to work just for food, not money for clothes, or housing, just food (you live in a lean-to) then the mining or base extraction costs are minimal. Lots of displaced, desperate people in the area.

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Go

I have an idea

Let's punish countries we don't like in a way that is guaranteed to make the ones who have no say at all suffer.

DPRK: no food for you!

RSA: your AZT supply is terminated

USA: that's your last barrel of HFCS

The possibilities are endless.

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Old story

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/12/magazine/the-dirt-in-the-new-machine.html

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Well I would suggest not an Old story just an ongoing one...

The body count is around 2.5 million (the orginal was 5 million) people since 1998 and climbing.

#R;

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Silver badge

Do I smell a competitor?

So just like De Beers who want to cut these guys out of the diamond market by calling them blood diamonds - of course this was the same De Beers that worked in S Africa happily for 100years.

Perhaps we could also insist on freedom oil? Only using oil from countries that are nice to small furry animals? Obviously the middle east is out, and Norway (cruel to whales) and Canada (oil sands kill birds) - so that leaves the UK (or at least Scotland) as the sole supplier of ethically acceptable oil to a grateful world.

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Competitor no... very little competition...

I think the order of magnitude is a bit different in the DRC, 2.5+ million killed in this ongoing resource war, since 1998. The method of warfare is particularly stomach turning, rape of women and children (there was a particularly harrowing BBC3 programme about this), the aid agencies to their best to patch these people up then the next wave comes and so on and each time a new crop of child soldier can be swept up... As for De Beer, this was a company (and now is I think) being run from the UK, Cecil John Rhodes, with his zeal to extend the British Empire. So I think you would agree morally it is a pretty bad situation, in the south DRC there is proper mining taking place, but that coltan has to be transported via Zambia and Zim, then SA... the stuff in a cobalt salt form gets exported via Richardsbay.

#R;

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Boffin

Just in case

Just in case, does "scrap tin" originating from the DRC have a different isotopic fingerprint of its valuable impurities compared to ores from other parts of the world? A smuggler would find it quite easy to change the Ta:Nb ratio or other elemental ratios, but if the ratios of the isotopes of these two elements fingerprinted the metal, it would be far harder to disguise where it came from.

I'm guessing not - with the exceptions of materials originating in radioactive decay and materials of biological origin, isotopic ratios are pretty close to globaly constant because the chemistry (especially of heavy elements) is not isotope-sensitive.

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from the deep recessess of my aging brain

I seem to recall natural tin and cadium had a specific ratio, but once melted down it was obliterated, Yes you are right once cannot easily pinpoint the metals once melted...

these guys will take the path of least resistance, the move needs to start at government level but as I said above it is enourmously difficult to police. The chinese investing in infrastructure in the surround countries is massive with one goal insight to sate its thirst for minerals... in a bizarre way it is the interest of the developed world to keep these african countries in a state of instability,

1) it is cheaper to bribe people than pay proper taxes, and no environmental responsibilities.

2) the aid agencies exacerbate, the situation as the governments need not take responsibilty for its citizens.

3) The tragedy is that the citizens do not feel as if they are incontrol of their own destiny hence throw their hands in the air, and accept yet another goverment.

4) arms sales skyrocket, and the PMC's make tonnes of cash training these militias.

etc..

in the end the corporations deliver quarter on quarter beter shareholder value... and as the consumers are so far removed from what their consumption is causing that it is hard to make people realise that their precious mobile device is indirectly the cause of these people's suffering.

Ironically I think China is going to be forced to look to africa as a new supply of consumers... the same way tobacco companies were forced to change their target audience...

#R;

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I was wrong...

as I opened the diswasher, something shook lose from a neural network that said Zinc... it is Zinc and Cadmium that occur in a specific ratio in nature...

#R;

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Gold badge

Interesting!

Ooooh, I’ve known about this one for a while. This is supposedly a "great big thing" in the mineral world. My fiancée’s father happens to be the lead geologist in charge of a mining project here in Canada. He works for a company that is contracted out by the actual owners of the property. Unlike a lot of startup mining companies, it isn't some borderline stock scam...the companies involved are really truly trying to make a go of getting a functional mine operational here.

The reason? The mining company that bought up this particular chunk of land just happened to buy one sitting on top of an absolutely stupendous deposit of niobium and tantalum. They are just getting round (finally!) to the feasibility study required for the stock exchange…but from everything I am able to ascertain it is a commercially viable property.

Taken in context; soon there will be a bleeping enormous niobium/tantalum mine in Canada that gets to not only sell it’s minerals at the current rates but it gets to play up the “fair trade” bit as well. If that feasibility study comes back positive, I am going to invest quite a bit into the company that owns this mine for exactly that reason.

It’s not that there is exactly a flood of these minerals on the market. As Tim said; the cost of processing is the big hit. The advantage this particular group is hoping they have is that the economy of British Columbia is in a shambles. Huge swathes of the population were heavily dependant on a now virtually-defunct forestry industry.* It gives them a province desperate to get some mining action going with a captive labour force desperate for work. The processing facility can then be located in a some random nearby tiny town that used to process lumber.

Interesting to see the issue pop up on El Reg.

*(Thank you America for disregarding NAFTA whenever you please such that you can screw the softwood lumber market enough to ruin an entire province. “Free Trade” indeed – only so long as it benefits the US, apparently.)

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Bronze badge

Yes Bruce

The NYT story is indeed old: but the success of the Enough Project is very new.

BTW, back when that NYT story came out it was actually profitable to purchase Ta capacitors on e-Bay and then sell them to the refiners to be processed for the scrap value.

That's the sort of weird stuff that happens in an insane bubble of a market (the Ta price went from it's normal $200 ish per kg to $2,000 per kg).

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very interesting... Speaking Congo...back in 1978... there was a similar Cobalt bubble...

What happened was this... the Soviet Union started buy Cobalt like crazy... and the price went sky high, the US could not figure out what was going on until there was a Cuban led incursion from Angola into Shaba Province ((Katanga) Southern Congo) to occupy some of the mines, so as to cut the USA's cobalt supply... a bunch of merceneries (I think as the CIA used to have a base there in the South Congo) repulsed them. It would not have hurt the US as they keep (or kept, I believe some has been sold off) at least a 2 year supply of any strategic mineral in stockpiles.

The Enough Project looks VERY VERY good!! Thanks...

#R;

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Stop

Not really.

Excuse me for posting anonimously, but I do have some knowledge on this matter.

Although it is undoubtedly correct that us westerners are in some ways responsible for aggravating the situation in Africa, and in this case particularly in Congo (formerly Zaire, and before that Congo, there is no end to the inspiration of the African independence fighters), it is not the cause, but merely a symptom.

Ever since the Congolese independence from Belgium (a country which DOES actually exist, contrary to popular belief), Congo has always been fighting internal and external conflicts for one reason or another. The civil unrest in Katanga province is well documented, and is somewhat akin to the situation around the India/Pakistan border.

Congo is essentially gouverned by tribes and warlords, who exploit and suppress local population. They use local populace as slaves to mine the countries riches like diamonds and ores, which are sold on global markets to fund their arms deals with which they continue their civil wars.

They have become very adept at laying the guilt trip on the Western world, thus securing aid and funding that can be used to perpetuate their corrupt governments. This has been so since Lumumba and his cronies, Mobuto and now the Kabila lads.

Yes, the west must take a more responsible attitude towards Africa and yes, we are most certainly not free from sin, but it is not the cell phone user who perpetuates this.

Congo actual consists of three or more generatons of people who have never known anything else but war, murder, pillage, rape and government corruption. In this situation it is far to easy to lay guilt on the western consumer.

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No... really...

I think the issue is that companies exploited the traditional rivalries... remember the weapons these guys use come from the west and east, they have to pay for these weapons, now given that they can hardly feed themselves what do they use to pay? well the stuff the west needs and wants, These guys do not go to the west and say hey! we have stuff that you might be able to use to build turbine engines and mobile phones, the demand is the other way round...

These people would not even BEGIN to know how to lay a guilt trip, they are to busy trying to survive... nor have they the power OR the money (remember they got given weapons) to be able to highlight the issues or drive a media campaign...

Lumumba (Kennedy quite liked him) was killed by foreign agents, it seems the CIA had some involvement in the incident, and the US then proceeded to install Mobutu. The diamonds and ores are sold on global markets, but not by african companies (correction... not any more... think De Beers/Anglo American, which is British now, with orignal investment for britian and the Rothchilds), but by western companies.

In the coldwar the congo was *nearly* the *exclusive* supplier of cobalt for US planes in one of the congressional reports on strategic minerals there is a nice pic with this caption "Chromium and cobalt are essential in jet engines of high-performance military aircraft such as this U.S. Air Force F-16" The cobalt from the the Congo and the Chrome from SA and Zim. Belguim was probably more exploitative than many of the colonial powers, have a look on Youtube there is a series from the BBC that someone uploaded about the tactics used by the Belgians, but be warned if you cannot stand seeing piles of human hands or huge groups of people without a right hands (because they did not bring in enough rubber... rubber NOT used by them but the west).

The cell phone user can do SOMETHING IF they are aware of what their use of these cool gadgets causing to happen in the Congo, they helped to some extent improve working conditions in sweatshops and reduce the use of child labour once people became appalled by what was shown to them. So I think we as western consumers have some duty as can at least affect our governments (HOPEFULLY) to help these people who cannot.

Again the colonial powers drew the borders of these countries with now thought as to the orginal tribal (kingdom) borders, what helped the European countries in those days was that there were no written records of African history.

Having said all that... In many ways a lot of the african countries were better off in colonial days (NOT Congo though), the british empire did bad things BUT on the whole MUCH better than what things are today and the reason is they had access to markets, ie the country running the colony and extracting the resources had access to a market, AND because they were responsible for the populace, for labour etc the people lived a much better life, and THAT cost the colonial country a lot of money... NOW the role of the a colonial country has been replaced by global corporations and they have to global to access the markets, and they have NO responsibilty for the populace, or the environment, all that they need is the bags filled with coltan everytime plane lands to take the next shipment off... We are the only ones that can affect the change as those corporations I betcha will not... as it cost them more.

In some African countries the only way correct the situation is regime change, I am afraid as Sierra Leone proved...

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Boffin

Re: Not really.

"Yes, the west must take a more responsible attitude towards Africa and yes, we are most certainly not free from sin, but it is not the cell phone user who perpetuates this."

True, but it is the purchaser's job to keep the manufacturers honest and decent. Otherwise, they all too readily claim that "the consumer wants cheap phones and doesn't care about how they are made" or "we trust our suppliers to be nice people".

Corporations when under the spell of "shareholder value" seem to be run by people who have no problems sleeping at night while their products are made in unacceptable conditions by underpaid people from resources supplied by criminals. They may point to the shareholder as the excuse; in turn the shareholders have no right to demand a guaranteed premium on the value of their shares by suggesting or promoting unethical behaviour as a means of getting what they want.

Generally, however, if purchasers can exercise some control then they should: that's where most of the money comes from, after all.

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Anonymous Coward

Forget white mans guilt

Perhaps the answer is to invade these countries and impose some sort of democratic rule of law. Ostensibly the reason for going into Iraq (once the WMD thing was found to be untrue).

Much better chance of it going well too, since it can't actually get any worse.

Stop giving aid in the form of charity and pop singers, and do what China is doing (building infrastructure) instead.

Stop dealing with "presidents" who are one step above gang leaders.

Sadly we won't. These minerals are too plentiful elsewhere for us to give a toss about where they come from, and we are too hung up over our role in the past which led to this mess.

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I think it is moral obligation to fellow humans...

I agree with several of your points,

1) aid pop singers etc... Aid IMO is the WORST thing you can do for Africa... (stop donating silly clothes to africa it has killed the few clothing factories in Africa)

2) Stop dealing with presidents... indeed! I agree...

The point about the Congo is due to a freak of nature this place has this one element Cobalt ...(Goblin ore (why does it conjure up images of Lord of the Rings)) and that is it scourge...

#R;

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Anonymous Coward

Yeah like that's gonna work like, NOT.

You can't just walk into a country, knock over the power infrastructure, then say "All ya'all play nice and democratik like now, ya year?" and walk away. Or, well, you can, but you shouldn't be surprised you have now more warlords and factions and are guaranteed a possibly even bloodier civil war than before. Like how Saddam was a cruel asshole but there's a lot more killing going on now, with no cards left to play. Like how the Taliban are still there and aren't going away to the point that the occupying military propose to try and talk to them. The Taliban, meanwhile, are laughing their heads off and will just continue to sit pretty until they own all of the land. There really is nothing else for them to do; they can't lose.

What makes you think these expert guilt-trip-and-civil-war milkers in Congo will do any different? The way they look at it is that they are the top of the food chain; they are doing the violence, not suffering from it. Walking in with a westerner's PoV that blindly assumes peace and democracy will spontaneously spring up from our footsteps if only we'd deign to go there is, charitably speaking, a bit misguided.

Not so charitably we could call it massively arrogant naivette. The thing non-westerners mean when they say "typically whitey".

And yes, it's our fault. We went there, took over power, started to fight among ourselves, and basically walked away. Feh, *cough* some of us *cough* forced the existing power structure out in a hurry because the standing plans to hand over power to the natives in a couple of decades so they'd have time to adapt were deemed "too colonial". The result was predictable.

If you want to fix it yourself, better take a well-funded army, better be prepared to keep it funded for a generation or two, and be prepared to out-bloody some of the bloodiest warlords in history. Care to stomach that? I thought not.

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As I said... like Sierra Leone...

I think what the british accomplished there with the help of a few PMC's (quite a few of my fellow soldiers) and seems to be working... for now at least.

Have a read of the "Bottom Billion" Paul Collier has some interesting concepts.

You mention for a generation of two... well been there done, and don't want the T-Shirt... it took me a long time to be able sleep peacefully.

#R;

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Thumb Up

I love the reg

Absolutely fascinating story, and the comments just as much. The depth of knowledge of el reg's readership never fails to astound me.

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Ceramics

I try not to use tantalum capacitors, for the most part I use X5R ceramics where they might be found. However, I don't design mobile phones.

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References

"We can however tell where coltan comes from, as a result of this project. (Ignore their estimate that 50 per cent of the world's Ta comes from DRC: it's more like eight per cent.)"

So we're being told to believe one piece of information from a given source, but without any references to the contrary, we're also being told in the same breath to ignore another piece of information from the same source. Hmm.

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it is 50% of Cobalt... not tantalium

#R;

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tantalum...

#R;

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Desperate

I watched a film about DR Congo last weekend as part of an African film festival, it was called 'Congo in Four Acts'. The county is a complete mess. As one poster has said the wars that have raged in the country are brutal, using rape as a weapon of war and there is barely any infrastructure. The film didn't examine any causes or suggest any solutions, it just reflected the true desperation and poverty of the citizenry.

One of the four vignettes focused on people in a former mining town trying to scratch out an existence from the artificial desert created by the mining. Young children were helping the adults to break rocks of ore into gravel, presumably for resale for processing. One day's back-breaking labour was paying enough for a couple of bowls of flour to live on.

Well worth a watch if you get the chance to see it, but bleak as hell!

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Thanks... for the pointer to the film

And THAT is exactly ONE of the points... these mining companies that do not operate within normal govermental/environmental guidelines (because there is no effective government) are allowed to flout THEIR environmental responsibilty. In Kivu the situation is slightly different, here people are effectively just digging and panning the stuff out of the earth some with common gardening tools! (just a thought I wonder who is providing that... it would be interesting to follow that trail too)

We have the power (we can hope... seems a lot of people marching in London against he iraq war did not do much to stop it... but try we must) as the conscientious end users to force our own countries to improve the governance for these companies...

#R;

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Gold badge

@Ray Vecchio

Due South?

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Indeed...

as Ray hated computers...

#R;

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Big Brother

Seeking the root cause

@"What's a lot less certain is which way around the causality goes: is it people being violent to control the minerals trade or is the minerals trade a way to finance violence already inherent"

I would have said both apply at the same time. After all both statements are not mutually exclusive. Also what you are effectively really saying is Power and Money, i.e.

Power : "is it people being violent to control the minerals trade"

Money : "or is the minerals trade a way to finance violence already inherent"

Both money and power can be used to reinforce each other, after all money is power over people who need money to live. Therefore money really is just another form of power. So different forms of power used to reinforce each other.

Therefore its really about the need for power, in other words, the power to control others for their gain. Ergo a Narcissistic behaviour driving the war and violence against others for their own gain.

So once again we come back to the Narcissists in society, who seek to have power over everyone else for their own self interested gain. Even if that requires them to kill others to gain power over everyone else. Narcissists exploit anything they can for power, so its not the phones or minerals causing the war, its the Narcissists causing the war for more power in any way they can.

Which is why Narcissists gaining increasing power in any society is really so dangerous for everyone else. Sound familiar? … It should do, as Narcissism is ultimately the core driving force behind every war and every social repression in history!

Big Brother icon as its really about control and control is power and this is about the people who seek power over others, the power to dictate how others must live, which benefits the self interested people with the power far more than their controlled serfs. Which is the way the people in power want it. Sound familiar? :(

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Bronze badge

Source for the 8% number

http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/niobium/mcs-2010-tanta.pdf

USGS: your source for all of these sorts of supply numbers.

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Thanks Tim...

The tantalum is only an incidental bonus in the Congo... Cobalt is a main driver...

You have to lump the Congo and Zambia Cobalt numbers together...

http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/cobalt/mcs-2010-cobal.pdf

and there is your answer those guys in the congo are swimming in the stuff...

#R;

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