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The Congo Tantalum Rush 230

Posted by michael
from the le-voreux dept.
Logic Bomb writes: "The New York Times Magazine takes a look at the mining of a muddy substance called coltan. Once refined, it becomes tantalum, the crucial ingredient in capacitors. To put it simply, the modern high-tech world depends on this stuff. And while most of us have images of squeaky-clean chip factories and such -- in marked contrast to sleazy textile sweatshops -- it turns out that this industry has a dark side that takes a major toll on human lives. Definitely worth a read."
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The Congo Tantalum Rush

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:30PM (#2111344)
    We could let this continue to occur. This is most likely to happen. Or we could form a private army, funded and outfitted by all the major corporations that require chip tech including Lockheed Martin, Intel, Microsoft, et cetera, and march against the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We would seize it in an amazing tour de force and control the stream of Tantalum. We would be fair and benevolent leaders and our people would admire us. We would give them shiny baubles and bags of rice and they would treat us like gods.
    • by Giant Hairy Spider (467310) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:53PM (#2146237)
      Now you know that would just cause the bushmen you believe to be sparse and to have long since integrated into society to adopt the son of one of the current industry representatives as their messiah, resulting in them taking over the world riding elephants, letting hurricanes into mid-west USA and central Asia with nuclear weapons, and shouting loud enough to crack stone floors.

      You wouldn't happen to be a grossly obese man who floats around on suspensors, would you?
    • Strange but true (Score:5, Interesting)

      by visualight (468005) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @03:50PM (#2146808) Homepage
      Actually something like this is the only way to save this country. Let me qualify this.

      My best friend is born and grew up in Zaire (now the Congo). Her mother is from Zaire and her father is an American who went over in the Peace Corps and eventually become the owner of a diamond mine. Because of her I often hear the news from that country as well as the opinions of the few Congolese who happen to live in this country.

      Less than 10 years ago the Congo had roads, electricity, hospitals, schools, an infrastructure. Now there is nothing. My friend describes it as "surreal" the way the country became "not a country" so quickly. Now it's so far gone they cannot recover on their own. Without some outside force strong enough to completely dominate the region nothing will change. It is my personal opinion that most Congolese who are not warlords would actually welcome an invasion from a European power. At least there would be less chance of being murdered by some "soldier" for what pitiful possesions you still own.

      Yes I have heard too many times that wearing a better pair of boots than the soldier who confronts you is a capitol offense

      • Re:Strange but true (Score:2, Interesting)

        by MeanGene (17515)
        For all the percieved evils of the Soviets they (to the best of their "internationalist" doctrine) tried to help bring African countries up from the misery.

        CIA (and MI5 and whatever the fsck French call their spy shop) killed Patrice Lumumba and many other leaders in countries like Angola and Mozambique for daring to cuddle up to the Commies instead the "benevolent" colonial masters. But Soviet enthusiasm ran out in 1980's and Soviet Union itself ran out in 1990's.
      • What's really awkward is that with the tremendously valuable natural resources of the Congo (this article's focus, diamonds), it could have a standard of living nearing that of the richer middle eastern countries. Too bad western exploitation ruined the country. Have you heard about the new movie about the assasination of the Congolese president? How accurate is that to what you hear from your friends?
  • I actually wrote an article about this last spring in Norway's largest news website. You can find it here. [www.vg.no] I also got some statements on the subject from the now bankrupt "Magcom" mobile phone manufacturer... :)
  • Instead of blaming the corporations that exploit the workers, ask yourselves why the governments in the host countries like the Congo don't have any labor standards. Then ask yourself just how often are the governments in countries like the Congo actually willfully allowing stuff like this to happen. We import from China all the time because we have anti-robotics culture that would go nucking futz if many of our manufacturers used mostly robots on their assembly lines because that would "cost jobs." The reality is that we can't have both cheap goods and high standards in the lowest of the low jobs in industrial manufacturing. The only way in most cases to eliminate the need for cheap labor is to use robotics and of course the luddites in society (the majority of society?) are vehemently opposed to using robots for production even though it would often give us a freer society and cheaper goods and services.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    This paragraph from the article basically tells the whole story, all one has to do is change the decade and the name of the country. The U.S. overthrows yet another democratically elected country (Australia, Chile, Brazil etc. etc.), sets up support for the military dictator, chaos ensues:

    In the 1960's, the Americans waded in. To fight Communism and secure access to cobalt and copper, the Central Intelligence Agency helped bring about the assassination of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. That was followed by three decades of White House coddling of his successor, Mobutu Sese Seku, Africa's most famous billionaire dictator, who set a poisoned table for the chaos that followed his eventual overthrow in 1997.

    • That statement is very misleading. Patrice Lumumba was hand-picked by the Belgians and heavily backed by them. He was no more a democratic leader than Lenin or Chaing Kai-Schek.

      The fundamental problem with Africa is that the boundaries of "nations" were drawn up in French and English palaces and do not reflect reality in any way. Tribal warfare and a primitive society combined with foreign commercial interests results in a constant state of warfare.

      Also, the US has never overthrown Australia. I'd suggest laying off the crack.
      • Also, the US has never overthrown Australia. I'd suggest laying off the crack.


        No, but they have taken very small chunks of land and refused access to them. Pine Gap is a well known example. Located in the outback this piece of land was taken and is thought to be setup as a communications (aka spy) network. The Amersicans have never once told anyone exactly what goes on here. As soon as on of our prime-ministers started to make noises, there was a quick change of government and Bob-Hawke was thrust into leadership. I cant remember the whole story, but the ABCs (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 4-corners did a very intersting documentary on the whole affair. Yes, the Americans could have been an influencing factor in overthrowing an Australian Government. All it takes here in .au is a sweet little bit of television advertising (mild propoganda) to bump the voting-poles slightly over the 50% region in the 2-party prefered selections.

        The people with the money have the power, not the voters.
      • > Also, the US has never overthrown Australia. I'd suggest laying off the crack. What do you need, the CIA to place ads in newspapers spelling out their role in the Whitlam/Kerr affair?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Bah. Opinions from /.ers on social justice (where it doesn't directly affect Open Source Software) are as generally as relevant and informed as Barney the Dinosaur's opinion on the DMCA.

    Fuck you, you self-satisfied, self-important, self-obsessed twerps.

    Opinions raised vary between "screw you jack, i'm all right" and "duh, why don't they just become more american".
    Christ can't you people grasp that there are some more important issues than the price of components for your latest toys?

    Can you not attribute any significance to injustices that *don't* directly affect you personally?

    No wonder the rest of the world is sick to death of wealthy, white American technocrats. The *only* reason we keep swollowing your shit is because it's rammed down our throats.

    Fuck you.
  • Tantalum capacitors are to popular because of their high capacity and low equivalent series resistence (ESR). There are, however, some alternatives by now. A good candidate is the multi layer ceramic capacitor which reaches almost the same specific capacity values and same low series resistence characteristics. They are, however, still much more expensive then the tantalum capacitor types. They are more expensive though.
  • ... but what do you expect?
    It's the only industry they have. It's the only way to make money. Yes it's unpleasant, and they're probably being shafted by the First World, but that's just life.
    Sometimes you do just have to spend your working day waist-deep in manky water rooting through mud.

    If you force the price of tantalum ore up by increasing the amount paid to the miners, the companies that buy it will go somewhere else.
    If that happens, the mines will close. Now the mines may not be very environment-friendly, but if they close, what are the miners going to do? Get jobs in Gap and Starbucks?

  • Americans..... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Remote (140616)
    If you were not so well armed, you USians would be the funniest breed in the world, even without Dennis Miller or Dana Carvey.

    Ive been ther a few times, I lived there for a while. I was amazed when I saw someone on TV or at an University setting claiming that the U.S. should not do business (actually *buy* things) from nations that did not respect basic human rights. Though thats not what the article says, Id say it falls in the same broad category of narrow perspective.

    Sweatshops? Is that what do you call a place where one has to work for more than 12 hours a day under pressure? Like a law firm in D.C. or some programming shops in CA? No matter these guys are working so as to be able to afford their condos or wine&dine twice a week, its still food and housing, only at first-world standards. Not too different from minework in Congo, given ones expectations. Thanks God I have to work only 8 hours a day, if I ever do more than that its because I want to.

    How about human rights? Where I live an employee is entitled 30 days of vacation every 12 month period. Oh, you dont in the U.S., would that be a human right violation? Children are allowed to work here after they are 16, is that a HR violation? Whos to say? You think its fine to show a kids face on TV and screw him for the rest of his life if he has been charged with some felony even before conviction? You cant do it here even after conviction. You think you live in a free country? I never felt so oppressed and watched and under someones monitoring as I did while in the U.S.. Granted, I was living in D.C., but I think the average urban USian is yet to experiment real freedom. Maybe that would explain their behaviour when they come over... I could do this the whole day (even without mentioning U.S. foreign policy), but the point is: you have to broaden your horizons! Stop judging everyone under your values. They are good, very good indeed, but they dont work all over the world! Youll only profit from that.
    • by Pope (17780)
      Sweatshops? Is that what do you call a place where one has to work for more than 12 hours a day under pressure? Like a law firm in D.C. or some programming shops in CA?

      It's not the hours and the pressure: it's the wages for that labour combined with the preceding 2 factors. How many coders and lawyers do you know personally who work for US$5 a day?

      None. I rest my case.

      • Re:dumbass (Score:2, Insightful)

        by n xnezn juber (243178)
        How many coders and lawyers do you know that make $90,000 in a country where the cost of living is $1 US per day?

        Is there some reason that all wages should be compared to an absolute value versus a relative purchasing power? Even in the grand old US of A we have different costs of living in various parts of the country. Do we complain that an engineer in Iowa is making $50,000 and the same job is paying $90,000 in the Silicon Valley? Nope. Know why? Cost of living!
    • "Stop judging everyone under your values. "

      You just wrote reasonably big rant judging US by your set of values and definitions.
      Don't show our face here again.
    • Though thats not what the article says, Id say it falls in the same broad category of narrow perspective.

      The artical spesificaly said that the Coltrain was helping Congo, not hurting it. And though the miners sloshed around in the mud quite a bit, they didn't seem to unhappy with anything other then the falling price.
  • If only I could trade old cap's for the "affections" of young women...
  • by mr_data_esq (132774) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @04:30PM (#2129936)
    Hate to say it, but technically speaking, the article and the post are both way off. Tantalum isn't "the crucial ingredient in capacitors", and the electronics industry doesn't "depend on this stuff" at all. Most caps are made with ceramic materials (e.g. clays) or paper soaked in an electrolytic solution, but there are many other dielectrics available, like polypropylene, mica, etc., each with their own favourable characteristics.

    The nice thing about tantalums is that they are very small for the amount of capacitance they have - hence their popularity in PDAs and celphones. But they're expensive, and polarised - you have to plug them in the right way, or they literally blow up. They also can't tolerate much overvoltage.

    For the things that tantalums are most often used for (power-supply filtering), a kind of capacitor called multilayer ceramic actually works better. These are made mostly from nickel powder, and they're much cheaper and tougher. They're also non-polarised, which can reduce assembly costs, and they don't depend on hard-to-get tantalum powder.

    Last year there was a shortage of tantalum powder, which made tantalum caps really hard to get. Now word is getting out that the new breed of multilayer ceramic chip caps can do just as well, people aren't using tantalums nearly as much as they were. I think this is the real reason for the tantalum ore crash.
    • Tantalum isn't "the crucial ingredient in capacitors", and the electronics industry doesn't "depend on this stuff" at all.
      Tell that to all the people who were screaming -- me included -- when the tantalum cap supply was constrained. Tantalum caps may not be the only type, but they *are* important.
      Most caps are made with ceramic materials (e.g. clays) or paper soaked in an electrolytic solution, but there are many other dielectrics available, like polypropylene, mica, etc., each with their own favourable characteristics.
      The density (capacity per unit volume) of the ceramics and plastic film caps is too low for power supply filtering. Aluminum caps have good density but most have fairly high series resistance. Tantalum caps are have a great combination of high density and low equivalent series resistance.
      But they're expensive, and polarised - you have to plug them in the right way, or they literally blow up.
      Yeah, baby! The classic flash/bang of a dying tantalum.

      They also have a high failure rate in use (especially infant mortality). Somebody once told me that Motorola didn't allow tantalum caps in pagers simply because too many of them spontaneously die. Ceramics cost more, but the savings on warranty returns and poor customer experience paid for it.

      For the things that tantalums are most often used for (power-supply filtering), a kind of capacitor called multilayer ceramic actually works better.
      It's only just now that ceramics with a competitive density are available, and they are still rather costly and availability still isn't good. Even then, the same advances that improve ceramics also work for tantalums, which have been getting steadily better too.
      Now word is getting out that the new breed of multilayer ceramic chip caps can do just as well, people aren't using tantalums nearly as much as they were. I think this is the real reason for the tantalum ore crash.
      The move to alternatives is part of the supply improvement, but there's also the fact that cell phones are slumping and manufacturers increased capacity.
  • by jyoull (512280) <.ude.tim.aidem. .ta. .mij.> on Saturday August 11, 2001 @02:05PM (#2130021)
    High incidence of cancer, sick kids, etc...

    "... Today, the valley is home to more EPA Superfund sites (29) than any other county in the nation, with the most notorious of those sites -- from a leaking tank at a Fairchild Semiconductor fabrication plant -- poisoning a well that served the south San Jose neighborhood of Los Paseos. A subsequent study by the state's Department of Health Services found 2.5 to three times the expected rate of miscarriages and birth defects among pregnant women exposed to the contaminated drinking water, leading to a lawsuit and multimillion-dollar settlement in 1986 with over 250 claimants...."

    Full two-part story at Salon, 7/30/01 and 7/31/01:

    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2001/07/30/almad en1/index.html [salon.com]

    • leading to a lawsuit and multimillion-dollar settlement

      Spot the difference between USA and Central africa right here. In Central africa, no company is even concerned that that might happen to them.

    • Yeah......superfund sites. There's a bunch of political bullshit for you.

      I grew up in the mining area near what is now the Bunker Hill Superfund Site. You know what they do there? They remove lead from the ground in the area. Do you know what Bunker Hill did when they were a mining and smelting company? Hmmmmmm....give you three guesses.

      When it's done to make a profit it's called mining. When it's done as a socialist excuse to spend tax dollars and beat up people who are trying to make a buck, well then we call it a superfund site. But a rose by any other name is still a rose. And that superfund site is just a mine with a different name and a not-for-profit management.

      Don't go looking at the superfund sites in this country to compare us to the third world. It just doesn't work that way.
  • From the last few paragraphs of the article....
    When progress is being made, it often involves the mixed blessing of coltan. In eastern Congo, two mining entrepreneurs, Edouard Mwangachuchu, a Congolese Tutsi, and his American partner, Robert Sussman, a physician from Baltimore, are struggling to build a legitimate business in an illegitimate state.

    They run a company that even their competitors say treats miners fairly. It supplies shovels and picks to about a thousand men who operate as independent contractors in mines located far from national parks, protected forests and endangered gorillas.

    ...But then the UN and the Motorolas and Nokias of the world see the dead primate photos, their PR departments go apeshit, and then:
    Last year, Sussman and Mwangachuchu shipped their ore to Europe on Sabena airlines. That airline now refuses their business, and they are scrambling to find another shipper. They fear that a corporate embargo could cripple their business and idle miners who have come to depend on them.

    ''We don't understand why they are doing this,'' Mwangachuchu told me. ''The Congolese have a right to make business in their own country.''

    ...And so it seems that not all corporations are evil ones, and that some good was about to be done for the community, and that a hasty implementation of morality is, at least in this case, limiting the welfare of the people of the Congo.
  • Human Nature (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Waffle Iron (339739) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @07:01PM (#2130825)
    Before the civil war, the park was home to about 8,000 eastern lowland gorillas. That number may have since been reduced to fewer than 1,000, the report estimated, because miners and others in the forest are far from food supplies and must rely on bush meat. Apes are killed for food or killed in traps set for other animals. If something is not done to stop mining and poaching, the report said that the eastern lowland gorilla ''will become the first great ape to be driven to extinction -- a victim of war, human greed and high technology.''
    A major species closely related to ourselves is going to go extinct to so that some people can scrounge up some meat. In fact, less total meat than a single planeload of hamburger patties.

    And we humans are self-aware enough to realize this is happening, yet are too incompetent and self-centered to do anything about it.

    It's fscking pathetic.

  • I'll agree that there are definitely problems there, but whatever happened to objective journalism? From the first sentence, the author has convicted every cell phone user of some crime against humanity.

    The article reads worse than some flamebait & troll posts I've seen here on Slashdot. Of course, it is in the NY Times, which is hardly an unbiased news source.
    • You must not have read the whole article. They spice up the lead like that to draw you in, but there was significant counterpoint brought in at the end.

      Go back and read the last half of the article where people who actually live in the Congo speak there views.

      MM
      --
      • I did read the whole article. Most of the quotes were from Mama Doudou that pimps out prostitutes to the workers, or workers that spend all their money on prostitutes threatening to break up their marriages.

        The author even admits their bias in this paragraph:
        The Coltan story seemed clear when I flew to Congo early this summer. Globalization was causing havoc in a desperate country. For the sake of our electronic toys, guerrillas were getting rich, gorillas were getting slaughtered and the local people were getting paid next to nothing to ruin their country's environment. Traveling inside Congo, however, I found clarity on the question of coltan to be as scarce as paved roads, functioning schools or sober soldiers.
        Later a scientist offers a rational viewpoint:
        Terese Hart, an American botanist who helped create the Okapi Faunal Reserve and has worked there since the early 1980's, supports neither an embargo on coltan nor a quick pullout of Ugandan forces from northeast Congo.
        The overall conclusion I draw from the article is this:

        The Congo is in political and military turmoil right now, which has little to do with the tantalum mining.

        Some Congolese are capitalizing on the tantalum demand and raising their standard of living, while others squander their money on prostitutes.

        The "mining" is causing little environmental damage; the people are just digging holes by hand (it's not strip mining).

        Another anti-globalization bleeding heart liberal journalist is blaming everyone and everything but the real cause of the problems.

  • what dark side??? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    as far as i see, both sides are benefiting from this.
    congo and it's people provide the goods that the high tech industry wants, and they get richly awarded(by their standards, anyway) for it.
    To me, i see no losers in this exchange.

    And don't forget the consumer, who benefit from the better technology and cheaper prices.
    Everybody is happy.


  • Tantalum is used in Tantalum capacitors, electronic devices that hold an electrical charge.

    The article doesn't seem to mention that Aluminum capacitors can be used instead. Aluminum capacitors are larger and cheaper than Tantalum, and they may have significantly more inductance. But, in most cases thet can be substituted. Usually the only problem is finding the space on a circuit board.
  • Not exceptional... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Mike Schiraldi (18296) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @02:53PM (#2142439) Homepage Journal
    Sure, the story sounds appaling -- notably the way Mama D. exploits her workers. But do you really think any other business is different? You like having a car, right? Hundreds if not thousands of Mama D.'s went into the production of it. They're called entrepreneurs, and we'd all be living in the dirt without them.

    The workers are thrilled to make $80 a day -- it's 400 times what they'd make otherwise. They're overjoyed to trade some muck they dug up for whores and antibiotics and beer and cash. Nobody's forcing them to do it -- they can always go back to whatever they used to do. Without someone "exploiting" them, they'd be bored and poor.

    If you're really concerned about this kind of thing, how about asking the guy who cleans the the toilets at work how much he gets paid to do it. Or the people who pick the oranges so you can have a morning glass of OJ. Or just about anything else you enjoy.


    • >Sure, the story sounds appaling -- notably the
      >way Mama D. exploits her workers. But do you
      >really think any other business is different?
      >You like having a car, right?

      Am I the only one who noticed the right wing slant of the article is more concerned that Mama D employs prostitutes, than with the environmental tragedy of mining in a rainforest?
      Or even that mining in the Congolese National Park is illegal, not to mention outrageous?

      What I get from the article is that we should be alarmed at the prostituion business going on in the mining town... The parallels between the African mining industry and the early days of the USAn mining industry probably don't stop just with worker exploitation and prostitution...

  • by Chirs (87576) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @03:07PM (#2143190)
    I lived in what is now the DRC for three years, and the standard of living there is such that few North Americans can actually conceive what it is like.

    The average annual income is $110 US and most families have to have a garden otherwise they wouldn't be able to eat. People think nothing of walking 10-20 miles a day to work and back. If you can afford a small scooter then you're considered a wealthy man. In villages, it is considered sheer luxury to have a tin roof on your mud hut. For most families any kind of vehicle other than an old bicycle is completely out of the question, and running water is something to dream about.

    In such living conditions, any work (even nasty, hard work) that pays well can be a real relief when you have a dozen mouths at home (wife, kids, cousins, parents, etc). I'm not saying that its great, and I think that things could definately be improved, but its definately better than some of the other options that they have
  • The US Military and CIA are funding the drug and tantalum murders, providing weaponry and equipment for guerrillas throughout Latin America, as well as electronic monitoring equipment that allows right wing candidates to monitor their opponents.

    Link to CIA/Military involvment [publicintegrity.org] on The Center for Public Integrity [publicintegrity.org].
  • Not exactly news (Score:2, Informative)

    by JoeF (6782)
    This is not exactly news anymore. The Industry Standard had an article about the topic on June 11: Guns, Money and Cell Phones [thestandard.com]
  • No surprise there (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jeffrey Baker (6191) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:57PM (#2146030)
    You'be been living in a dream world if you ever thought that the computer industry was squeaky clean. Silicon Valley has the highest density of EPA Superfund sites in the USA. Check out this lovely map of Silicon Valley pollution [svtc.org]. If you live in this neighborhood [svtc.org], you'll get cancer for sure. Computer production has never been clean. In fact, it's nearly as dirty as the military. The manufacturers have simply been able to put on a "clean" face for the world.
    • Re:No surprise there (Score:3, Informative)

      by nathanm (12287)
      Computer production has never been clean. In fact, it's nearly as dirty as the military.
      Now there's a loaded statement. Nowadays, the military is on the cutting edge of environmentally friendly technology. I'll admit, they had a lousy track record many years ago, but it's changed significantly.

      They've undertaken huge clean-up projects at most of their bases, plan every exercise & project for minimal environmental impact, and try to stay in strict compliance with US and state or host-nation environmental laws. Unlike many corporations that would rather pay the fines for non-compliance when it's cheaper.

      I speak from personal experience, in Air Force Civil Engineering. The construction projects I was involved in used high efficiency HVAC systems, low energy lighting, motion sensors that automatically turn lights off when rooms aren't in use, super-insulated buildings, toilets that use less water volume per flush, etc. These things all cost more up front, but have lower long-range operating costs. Now that I'm working in the private sector, commercial & residential clients forgo these systems for more traditional, environmentally unfriendly systems.

      Energy conservation wasn't even spoken about in the media in recent years, until Califonia's self inflicted energy crisis. The military has been heavily promoting it internally for several years.

      There was even a /. article a few months ago, about new bullets the Army is researching, for the sole reason they aren't harmful to our health & the environment like lead bullets.
      • Re:No surprise there (Score:3, Informative)

        by Jeffrey Baker (6191)
        I think that's great if the military is using environmentally friendly techniques these days. But, you can't mask the military's long, sad history of fucking places up. At Hunter's Point in San Francisco, the Navy used to sail decomissioned ships to sea, nuke them, tow them back to port, sandblast all the radioactive gunk off, then dump it all in the bay. Oh, nice! There are also many hundreds of barrels of radioactive crap from Hunter's Point barried in 50-gallon drums off the Farallon Islands, one of California's unique marine habitats and probably its best diving spot. If you grab a chart of the San Francisco Bay, there are many areas that are marked off-limits because of underwater live ammunition dumps.

        The kicker about Hunter's Point is that the city is really having to lean on the Navy hard to get them to clean the place up. They only this year quietly admitted the existence of the radioactive goop. Before, we thought it was just PCBs!

  • by rueba (19806) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @03:26PM (#2146129)
    Unlike previous slashdot stories such as this one [slashdot.org], the comments on this story have been remarkably free of racist vitriol. Is this an emerging trend?

    Anyway as an African, I would like to say that although the article probably accurately conveyed the realities of Eastern Congo, that place is majorly F*****ED up even by African standards, because of the long running civil war and lack of ANY govermental infrastructure. Many neighbouring countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and even Uganda are a lot more stable.(OK Uganda has some rebels in the Northern part of the country but it is still much much better than Eastern Congo overall. Congo is the worst case scenario.) For example in the Arusha and Shinyanga regions of Tanzania we have exactly this same kind of mining going on but at least the miners aren't terrorized by random soldiers,(Ok, so they probably have to pay a "commission" to some people... I didn't say it was perfect) the trade is somewhat regulated, and foreign companies that invest are monitored and can work peacefully.

    So my basic point is that the lawlessness in Eastern Congo is a sad situation, if this tantalum had been found elsewhere it might have been very beneficial. e.g Botswana has managed to benefit greatly from its diamonds.

    Also Congo was a very artificial creation of Colonial powers with many different ethnic groups that don't always get along. This makes a viable political system somewhat difficult. The same problems plague many African states, some more than others.

    Here is a good website for on African current events: http://allafrica.com [allafrica.com]

    Rob in Dar Es Salaam

  • One thing puzzles me: why do the cafeterias for the coltan mines always have a drink machine that doesn't work and a counter staff that takes off lunch at the same time as the rest of the workers?
  • A rare and expensive commodity is mined from central Africa and there are unsafe working conditions in the mines and violence over access to the deposits?

    Gee, I'm surprised.
  • not the only option (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Takahashi (409381)
    Tantalum caps are only one of the seemingly thousands or varieties of capacitors around. If they all went away today we could easily replace them with other varieties of capacitors. Sure tantalum caps are one of my favorite varieties because of their long life and their low leakage current but there not that essential and if you look at a lot of newer electronics you won't find any tantalums any way because there so dam expensive.
    • I design single-board computers for CompactPCI backplanes. For us there is no substitute for tantalum cap's. I am not saying that no substitute could possibly be produced by the companies that make capacitors, but as of now, there is no substitute.

      MM
      ----
  • Another article (Score:4, Informative)

    by npongratz (319266) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:34PM (#2146612)
    The Industry Standard had an article on this a couple months ago: http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,26784,00 .html [thestandard.com].

  • Not just hi-tech (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sawbones (176430) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:34PM (#2146613)
    To put it simply, the modern high-tech world depends on this stuff. And while most of us have images of squeaky-clean chip factories and such -- in marked contrast to sleazy textile sweatshops -- it turns out that this industry has a dark side that takes a major toll on human lives

    The sad thing is I think you would be hard pressed to find ANY industry that doesn't depend on some "sleazy textile sweatshop" at some point. I would wager that most of us are wearing at least one piece of clothing produced under less than ideal conditions.

    Lets also not forget that caps have been around for a hell of a lot longer than the "modern hi-tech industry".
  • And the point is? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by The Angry Clam (442606) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @01:37PM (#2146618)
    Now, I know that I'll probably be flamed to a crisp for this one, but I really have to say "Who cares?" After all, most people who read /. (I assume) come from the industrialized European countries and the United States. Let's all remember that the standard and style of living enjoyed in those countries is NOT the typical condition of existence for the majority of humanity EVER. Even at the height of Dynastic China and Imperial Rome, two of the most advanced ancient societies, the vast majority of the people lived in absolute squalor and filth, not knowing where their next meal was coming from, if there even was a next meal, etc. Slavery, robbery and murder were all common. Now here comes my admittedly controversial point: the vast majority of the world is still like that. The Congo basin is still like that. The evil greedy capitalist colonial corporations have nothing to do with it. There are all kinds of funky diseases, famines, and ethnic infighting in the area. If anything, the establishment of mining and factories will add stability to the region, since the companies want to protect their money and investment. In short, the next time you feel like whining about the plight of people in the third world, ask yourself "Do I want to live like that?" I suspect the answer is no, and if it is no, please don't stop the wheels of progress from helping them escape.
    • by lemox (126382)
      The crux of the matter is that when you talk about the poor conditions in just about any region of Africa (aside from the extreme north), almost all o fthose poor conditions did not exist until industrialized European countries and the United States decided to change them into colonies or banana republics to benefited their own economy at the expense of the African ones.
      • almost all o fthose poor conditions did not exist until industrialized European countries and the United States decided to change them into colonies

        This is true in a sense because poverty is only relative. When the Europeans came to Africa, they created poverty by introducing superior wealth.

        The same thing happens today in developing countries resulting in families leaving rural life for the cities in order to earn more to save up to buy the new necessities: a motorbike, tv, factory-made clothing, etc. Even bringing education to a country creates poverty in those who miss out on it and creates illiterates out of formerly normal people.

        But I'd never advocate trying to keep people isolated or to discourage them from taking advantage of the products of the modern world. I'd like our wealthier countries to help people to live the way they want, whether it's being left alone in their mountain tribe or saving up to buy a telephone.

        -Bruce
      • Wow.

        Pull your head out of your ass and think for a minute.

        When Europeans started colonizing Africa, many Europeans lived in a condition of squalor similar to conditions in African cities today. Ever read Charles Dickens?

        Africa has been a poor place for a long time. A burgeoning population combined with a lack of water and arable land are the source of poverty in many regions of Africa.

        In other regions, like Kenya and the former colony of Rhodesia more political factors come to play. The theft and abuse perpetrated by dictators who took advantage of the vacuum created during the pullout of colonial government set the stage for decades of warlords and conflict.

        • In other regions, like Kenya and the former colony of Rhodesia more political factors come to play. The theft and abuse perpetrated by dictators who took advantage of the vacuum created during the pullout of colonial government set the stage for decades of warlords and conflict.

          Umm, what the hell are you disagreeing with? You just told me to to pull my head out of my ass, then proceeded to reiterate my point exactly.

    • by Logic Bomb (122875) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @02:37PM (#2115913)
      Your argument is a fairly standard one against those who bitch and moan about the horrors of globalization. (I think it's basically a good argument.) This is not a typical case of globalization though, because "the wheels of progress" are not turning in the Congo. The mining is not an organized commercial operation at the lowest levels, like a factory. The reason fully organized commercial operations are beneficial is because they a) build infrastructure, and b) educate the population in at least some capacity, whether it be through pure technical skills or through low-level management. The mining does neither. In fact, it destroys the potential for future infrastructure by wrecking the environment. And people digging around in holes for buckets of mud is hardly an educating process.

      This process is not an example of globalization at work. It is advanced-industrialized countries extracting resources from poorer countries and leaving little in return. Though I am not attempting to place a value judgement upon it in this comment, I must point out that arguments which attempt to defend globalization are not valid here.

      • Maybe one day, just maybe, someone somewhere will get serious about space exploration, and instead of our continuing destruction of the planet and the people on it, and civilization will be able to obtain the minerals it wants from asteroids, airless moons, and all these treasure troves in the sky.

        If the people of the developed world could just see past their greed and cynicism and maybe recapture just a kernel of the vision that we used to have not too long ago, perhaps the lands of Brazil and Siberia (and Alaska?) and the people of Congo and Nigeria and all the other places of the world unfortunate enough to have some useful industrial substance could begin to heal.

        So, try to do something useful with your tax refund and give it to an organization which is trying to do something. Please.

    • Re:And the point is? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Some Dumbass... (192298) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @02:11PM (#2135418)
      Well first of all, if you have the flu, the measles and the chicken pox all at once, you don't say "Hey, who cares if I catch pneumonia!" Just because you have lots of problems doesn't mean that it;s okay to have more.


      If anything, the establishment of mining and factories will add stability to the region, since the companies want to protect their money and investment.

      Secondly, did you actually read the article? There are no companies. There are no factories. And those mines are holes in the ground dug by people (roughly organized into "camps"). It's still anarchy, not good financial planning.

      Besides, you only get to mine your natural resources once, then they're gone. The article says that the money from coltan mining is not going into infrastructure like schools and roads. So what happens when the coltan is gone? Evenyone's actually worse off than they started, because there's no more money to be made by mining, and you've gained nothing that can increase the country's wealth in the long run (like schools!) in return.

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't the Congo been mined for diamonds for 100+ years now? Has it done any good? Why do you think the coltan situation will be different?
    • Bzzzzzt! Wrong! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Robber Baron (112304)
      Now here comes my admittedly controversial point: the vast majority of the world is still like that. The Congo basin is still like that. The evil greedy capitalist colonial corporations have nothing to do with it. There are all kinds of funky diseases, famines, and ethnic infighting in the area. If anything, the establishment of mining and factories will add stability to the region, since the companies want to protect their money and investment.

      With all due respect, you are out to lunch on this one.
      From the Article:

      In the 1960's, the Americans waded in. To fight Communism and secure access to cobalt and copper, the Central Intelligence Agency helped bring about the assassination of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. That was followed by three decades of White House coddling of his successor, Mobutu Sese Seku, Africa's most famous billionaire dictator, who set a poisoned table for the chaos that followed his eventual overthrow in 1997.

      The evil greedy capitalist colonial corporations are NOT helping the situation. Sure, they'll give them the bare minimum to keep them digging or to keep churning out Nike's but they will never allow them to achieve the stability that will allow them to choose not to be exploited.

      • Absolutely right. If those with power wish to keep that power at any price, they will until their power is taken away from them. In the case of corporations, this has to come from the shareholders deciding that they won't support any company which does these kinds of things. Obviously, that is not going to happen, there will always be a lot of people who, if given the option, will be glad to profit from the misfortunes of others. It has always been, and sadly will always be. So that leaves the government. This has to come from our votes. We have to vote for people who will not allow corporations to make slaves of the third world, or be slave masters themselves. And while we're at it, can we lock up the executives of companies for human rights violations? That's a decent deterrant for the CEO of Intel or Nike. No more sweatshops or you will go to prison.
      • Sure, they'll give them the bare minimum to keep them digging or to keep churning out Nike's

        When you bought your computer, did you give the maufacturer the bare minumum to keep them selling computers, or did you pay an extra fee to help the copper and tantalum diggers?

    • by H310iSe (249662) on Saturday August 11, 2001 @02:17PM (#2146363)
      The funny thing is I usually find myself argueing postions similar to yours, only in this case I think you're wrong. In the olden times (say, Rome) they lacked the ability to raise living standards for a majority of the people to a decent level. Technology, etc. (maybe even capitalism...), has provided this ability to our age for what is probably the first time in history (sure,you could create small utopias in the past but nothing large scale). Therefore since we have the ability to achieve this, we might also have a moral obligation to pursue this end. This addresses your next point, that the 'wheels of progress' will pull these people out of thier current state. This is the typical arguement for global capitalization (vs. the anti-WTO crew) and it has some merrit. Just extend it logically - take a sweat shop making Nikes. If you pay the workers $.50 a day and this is twice as much as they'd make otherwise and applaud yourself for it, why not continue and give 'em a dollar or two? See, the wheels of progress tend to weigh human suffering and profit margins rather peculiarly, giving *way* too much weight to profit margins. They're important, but maybe, say, equally important as alleviating (sp?) suffering.

      Now your point about how farked up the place is before 'we' got there and how 'we're' a stabalizing influence, well taken. It's true that many places would be content to screw themselves for eternity and capi-colonialism stepping in simply changes the dynamic somewhat but doesn't nesc. create any *more* suffering (different, sure, but not more). People like killing other people. Still, the point is we *could* do better so maybe we *should*. Not just leave, but intervene more positviely. ...

    • by MrGrendel (119863)
      Why should we care? Maybe because we (or at least some of us) have a sense of ethics and respect for human life in general. This kind of oppresion is wrong. All the time. Everywhere. There is no possible way to justify it. The fact that humans have been treating each other badly and enslaving one another for much of the past 10,000 years does not mean it is an ethical activity that we should be supporting, whether it contributes to the illusion of progress or not.

      If anything, the establishment of mining and factories will add stability to the region, since the companies want to protect their money and investment. In short, the next time you feel like whining about the plight of people in the third world, ask yourself "Do I want to live like that?" I suspect the answer is no, and if it is no, please don't stop the wheels of progress from helping them escape.

      Why don't you explain to everyone how giving money to a group of people conducting an extremely violent and oppressive civil war contributes to the stability of the region? Companies don't need to bother protecting their money and investment, because they have no investment in the region. The rebels run the mines and then sell the raw materials to western corporations. They then use the money to buy weapons which are used to enslave, kill, and torture their advisaries. How is this improving anyone's life (other than those who are getting rich off of the war)?

      And as long as we're talking about helping people escape from poverty, let's talk about what "the wheels of progress" are up to in neighboring areas of Africa. In Sierra-Leone we have (you guessed it!) another civil war being funded by western corporations. In this case it's the diamond industry that we can blame. People (even children) who are not active rebels or aren't eager enough to mine diamonds for them are helped by having their hands lopped off. Children are sometimes helped by being forced to participate in the torture and murder of their parents. That's progress if I've ever seen it! In nearby Nigeria, Chevron officials helped labor leaders trying to organize their employees by participating in their assasinations. More progress inspired by a corporation protecting it's valuable assets! Unfortunately for the people who were helped by Chevron, human beings are not considered to be valuable and worthy of protection.

      So, no, I don't want to live like that and I don't want to help turn the wheels of progress. Trade can help people, but only if they actually get paid fairly for their labor and their countries are not turned into toxic wastelands in the process.

      • And this is the fundamental problem with pure capitalism. The object is to make a profit, right? Well, what corporations are doing is making a profit.

        "So," says the capitalist, speaking in a purely rhetorical fashion, "what's the problem?"

        Capitalism may work really well economically speaking, but only when the people who participate are EQUAL. In other words, they have to have the ability, socially and economically, to start up a competitor and drum the first guy out of business. This is not what is happening in third-world countries. It's not even what's happening in the United States. Profit is great, but human dignity is better. Capitalism needs controls on it in order to function in an ethical fashion in a society in which not everyone has the same opportunities. And sadly, Europe and the United States are not imposing those controls effectively, probably because the profit that the corporations accrue allows them to donate and lobby and get their government to do what they want.

        "So," says the capitalist, newly enlightened, "what do I do now?"

        Agitate for change. Get elected. Spend some money on good, well-researched causes. When you hear someone talking about how capitalism can do no wrong, gently dissuade them. If you're a huge corporation, stop trying to gouge the most out of these countries and act in your own enlightened self-interest -- if the people are treated well, they'll be around and able to work effectively for much longer. Above all, don't ever think that one person can't change things. Be that drop in the bucket. You'll sleep better at night.
    • "Now here comes my admittedly controversial point: the vast majority of the world is still like that. The Congo basin is still like that. The evil greedy capitalist colonial corporations have nothing to do with it. There are all kinds of funky diseases, famines, and ethnic infighting in the area. If anything, the establishment of mining and factories will add stability to the region, since the companies want to protect their money and investment."

      Do you have any clue about how horriby western involvment hurt the development of the Congo? The exploitation, enslavement, and murder of natives by the Dutch? I bet you also don't know that right when the Congo-basin residents were getting their act together following Dutch withdrawal their democratically elected president was assasinated, most likely with US involvement, because of fears of socialism. Today, armed bandits force natives to mine diamonds and control the market with brutality (I think amnesty international has something on this). Guess where the majority of US diamonds come from. Yeah, it's definitely their fault. The wheels of progress have done a whole fucking lot for the Congo.
  • by banky (9941)
    In GDW's old role-playing game "2300AD", the tantalum was the primary element in the creation of FTL drives. The Congo became a power center and the nations of the world scrambled to get enough of the stuff, while the recently united African nations on the Congo region charged them out the ass.

    When the game was written (late 80s sometime?) was all this going on?
  • Here is a short happy read of the events and effects of the events on the people of the Congo. Note that comment about being able to supply power for all of sothern Africa along with minerals and fertile land leave the impression they are far from being dirt poor. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/aug2001/cong-a11 .shtml
  • This will continue happening, if not over this, then over Nike shoes, or who knows what's next. We read an article like this using our computers made on the backs of the third world, say "Oh that's terrible" then go back to depending on the cheap prices you pay for their sweat. The only way anything will change is for everyone to stop sitting on their hands and make a statement against this kind of activity.

    Here in the US we depend on getting stuff dirt cheap even if that means hurting people in other countries. We're only willing to help people in third world countries if it will be beneficial to us (eg: Kuwait).

    Everyone in the US (myself included) needs to take a step back and realize how much we are destroying the entire world in order to give ourselves comfortable lives.

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