What’s Your Coltan Footprint?

We hear all about our “Carbon Footprint” – a person’s total greenhouse gas emissions, determined by things like the amount of petroleum we use through car and airplane trips, and the distance our food travels to arrive on our supermarket shelves. But there’s another footprint that we in the Global North would do well to examine: our Coltan Footprint.

Coltan is the colloquial name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore found in deposits all over the world. Twenty-five percent of the world’s coltan supply is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From coltan is extracted the elements niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is a major component used to create consumer electronic devices, such as cell phones, computers and DVD players.

Profits from coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been one major funding source of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region, according to the Danish organization DanChurchAid, in their report “Is There Blood on Your Mobile Phone?”:

Much of coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is done by children, and by hand, under extremely dangerous conditions, as this video from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting shows.

As the number and type of consumer electronics grow exponentially, there is a direct impact on the situation on the ground. For example, as documented by the website Toward Freedom, the year 2000 saw the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, as well as increased sales of cell phones, DVD players and other portable electronic devices. The increased demand for tantalum caused the price to jump from $49/pound to $275/pound and this led to a rapid acceleration of mining in the coltan-rich regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That this boom coincided with the Second Congo War (1998 – 2003) in which over 5 million civilians were killed indicates the extent to which armed conflicts in the African continent are fueled by the desire for control of resources.

To find your coltan footprint, add up:

1) The number of cell phones, laptop computers, gaming systems, DVD players you have owned in the past 10 years.

Mine is about 8.

If yours is above 0, you are part of creating demand for this mineral and should think about your responsibility for the nature of the resource wars still tearing apart the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So, dang. What to do?

The point is that it’s not just carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses that we have to reconsider, but all of our globalized consumption habits.

Consider this scene:

An H.G. Wells-style time traveler from 1850 visits a busy 2009 street corner the middle of New York City at 5:45pm on a Thursday. What the traveler will no doubt notice is streams of people walking down the street, chattering happily into small plastic devices. As one woman passes the traveler, a snippet of her conversation is heard:

“I love you” she tells the plastic device.

The time traveler may conclude that in this future, it is small, shiny, plastic robots that are the object of a good deal of our emotional attention.

When our jobs and personal lives in the U.S. are more and more knitted to electronic devices and equipment, can we imagine breaking free? Sidling up to that grungy phone booth with a roll of quarters in the pocket in our handbag designed for a mobile phone? Banging out letters to our friends on a typewriter, as opposed to clicking up an instant message?

Can we go back and create a different future?