Coltan: the Link Between Chimpanzees and Your Cell Phone

Written by Bella Zimbalatti, Roots & Shoots Guest Contributor. Sackville, New Brunswick. 

The other day I was helping my grandma, when I recognized the rag I was using to wash the dishes as a piece of an old t-shirt.  Though practical, reusing old clothing to fulfill a new purpose had never really occurred to me before then. I started to consider all the other items that get thrown out so flippantly, namely technology. How many times have you bought the latest and greatest technology only to replace it when something better became available? My Youth Leadership Council had given me an idea of the global consequence of this attitude, but I needed to know more, so I started to do some research into Tantalum – a highly efficient metal used in much technology. It is responsible for making life comfortable and convenient; however mining practices for this metal can be detrimental to the local people, animals, and environment.

Tantalum comes from Columbite Tantalum (“coltan”), an ore mined in several countries. It can withstand extreme heat and conduct electricity very efficiently, making small, yet efficient devices possible.  The global demand for coltan has been steadily increasing as these devices become more popular.

There are serious social consequences to coltan extraction. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in central Africa is one of the most significant coltan producers. It is also a volatile region. Coltan is a conflict mineral—its mining closely linked to civil war and violence from rebel groups.  Through theft, illegal control of mines, and illegal taxation of coltan, armed groups have managed to fund themselves through the coltan trade.  This weakens the nation’s fragile leadership, and adds fuel to the decades-long civil war which has already taken upward of 3.8 million lives.

Photo Credit: JGI DRC

The environment and animals suffer as well. In order for mining to take place, forests need to be cleared for the site, the camps, and the roads.  The artisanal coltan extraction methods are inefficient and destroy the land.  They require little sophisticated technology or equipment, making it possible for illegal mining to occur with ease in environmental reserves. This is a direct loss to the environment and habitat of wild animals.

There are also indirect causes of habitat loss. For example, civilians fleeing an armed rebel group associated with coltan mining might seek refuge in the forest disturbing habitat and depleting resources. Similarly, on-site miners might hunt, because transporting food to these remote locations is costly. Indeed, armed rebel groups and miners involved in coltan extraction were reported eating meat from chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants in the Kahuzi Biega National Park and on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Both of these protected areas are home to severely threatened animal species.

Photo Credit: JGI DRC

It is clear that coltan extraction is severely damaging to the surrounding people, animals, and environment. Our consumer choices have far-reaching effects on the habitat and livelihood of these parts of the DRC. It’s up to us to think critically and ACT:

Reduce Your Use:  Ensure that you are buying electronics you intend to use and will last you a long time.  This may mean not having the latest model, but you will be helping the environment, people and chimpanzees through reduced use.

Learn More: A good starting point for more information on the plight of chimpanzees specifically, and what you can do to help is the Jane Goodall Institute website. There are also many fascinating documentaries, books, and articles regarding resource consumption and environmental health.

Tell Your Friends:  Share this blog with three friends. Get the word out and educate others about the devastating effects of coltan mining on chimpanzees, people and the environment.  Encourage them to take action!

Get Involved with JGI:  See how everything is interconnected and how you can have a positive impact on people, animals, and the environment everywhere by joining our latest campaign!

Recycle Your Electronics: Find a local recycling service for your old electronics. If there isn’t one in your area, check online for a mail-in service.

Fix it: There may be simple solutions to your electronic problems.  Try fixing electronics before buying new ones, and save some cash along the way.

Comment:  Start a dialogue, whether right here on this blog or with your friends, family, and acquaintances.  The more we talk about these issues, the more opportunity there will be for collaborative solutions!

  • Do you think our use of coltan and other resources should be reduced?
  • How do our consumer choices affect the global community?
  • What do you think of the relationship between society, technology, and the environment?


Carmody, P. (2011). The New Scramble for Africa. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Lalji, N. (2007). The resource curse revised: Conflict and coltan in the congo. Harvard International Review, 29(3), 34-37. Retrieved from

Nest, M. (2011). Coltan. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

2 responses to “Coltan: the Link Between Chimpanzees and Your Cell Phone

  1. Pingback: Cultivating Peace in Africa | Change is in you·

  2. Pingback: How Canadian Electronics are Linked to a Central African War | Change is in you·

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