It’s been called the “blood diamond” of the technology world. But far from being shiny and cast in platinum rings, necklaces, and earrings, the mineral coltan looks more like landscaping gravel than any luxury item symbolizing eternal love.
And yet in some ways, coltan is more valuable to Americans than diamonds. The mineral is used in nearly all our cell phones, video game consoles, e-readers, and more.
Two-thirds of the world’s supply of the mineral is found in one of the most historically volatile areas in the world—the Eastern Congo—and it is this area that Mason anthropologist Jeffrey Mantz has been studying for several years.
Mantz, who studies economics, entrepreneurs, and local trade systems through an anthropologist’s lens, is interested in the way that the Congolese people have used coltan to earn money and food for their families. Through his fieldwork, he looks at what he calls “improvisational economies”—economies developed out of essentially nothing—and how these economies become sources of pride in the Congo.
“People mainly just go off in the forest and mine coltan. Literally, there are hundreds of thousands of artisanal, small-scale miners who are mining this stuff, and many of them are exploited by local militias,” says Mantz.
And yet, the people find a way to make it work, Mantz says. Though their supply of coltan might occasionally be stolen from them, or a militia might swindle them out of money, the Congolese miners continue on.
“There’s always more coltan,” says Mantz. “They can just go into the forest and get more, which is much less devastating than a militia destroying crops or an entire food supply in a village.”
Jeffrey Mantz, at center, during a 2009 visit to a village in South Kivu. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mantz
While the exploitation and illegal trade surrounding coltan has labeled it a “conflict mineral” and caused countries such as the United States to consider a ban on the substance, Mantz believes that a ban on coltan would be a disaster to the Congo.
“This is one of the only things saving the people there, their ability to rely on this particular industry for their livelihoods. One shudders to think what would happen to them without it,” says Mantz.
“The Congolese have a long history of being abused,” he adds. From the early slave trade, when the country was a major slave trade depot, to the more current civil wars with death tolls rising to more than 6 million, the Eastern Congo is an area already ravaged by the effects of war.
“There is no health system, no food to eat. Rape is very prevalent. It’s harrowing,” says Mantz.
Mantz contrasts this way of living to the larger idea of the digital age — where technologies such as cell phones and video games allow people around the world the freedom to connect and enter virtual realities.
“There is a lot of hope and optimism surrounding these technologies and these ideas,” says Mantz. “And yet, this technology relies on a mineral that comes from a part of the world where the digital age has meant anything but freedom.”
Still, says Mantz, there is a glimmer of hope that runs through the Congolese that he finds extremely intriguing.
“A lot of them are exposed to terrible things, but they plod on,” he says. “I’ve seen more optimism in some of them than in some Americans about the future of their country. They are very proud of their country and very proud of the fact they have all these resources. They think of themselves as a very rich people.”
While Mantz loves his work, he admits that putting himself in a dangerous part of the world is not always the most fun part of the job.
Though much of his research takes him to the relatively safe cities of the Congo, there is always a risk of disease or violence—the hazards that face an anthropologist sometimes. When Mantz teaches the theory class for undergraduate majors, he tells them the story of the bullet still lodged in his leg from a long-ago research project in Nicaragua.
“It gives me some street cred with the students,” Mantz jokes.
However, in a more serious vein, he says he feels that the isolation and danger of some fieldwork takes its toll after a while. And yet, despite the difficulties of fieldwork, Mantz believes the intellectual stimulation—discovering new, interesting things about people—is worth it all.
In the Congo, Mantz has met many people that he hopes will be affected by the work he does.
“You feel like you are making a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “You hope that something you are saying about this issue will be heard by some policy maker, someone, somewhere, and that will influence positively the way the Congo has been treated and make these people’s lives better.”