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Coloumbo-tantalite, also known as coltan, is a rare earth metal, source of the element tantalum. Tantalum is used in the manufacture of capacitors for a variety of electronic devices, including computers, cell phones, and gaming consoles, such as the PlayStation. The primary sources for coltan are Australia and South Dakota, but it can also be found in the African nations of Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the ore can be mined with just a shovel. It's easy to find. Just scoop up a shovelful of dirt, and pick out the little black stones. That's coltan, worth (as of April 8, 2001) $120.00 USD - $140.00 USD per pound (approximately $200.00 USD - $300.00 USD per kilogram) on the London mineral market.

A dirty little secret of the electronics industry, Coltan has been linked to as much misery and strife in Africa as conflict diamonds. Coltan is the ore from which tantalum is made, and tantalum is what makes our cell phones so small by enabling the manufacture of extremely tiny capacitors.

However, there is no regulated trade in the material. Manufacturers don't care much who they buy their coltan from, and so it falls into the same void of conscience that gold, timber, and diamonds find themselves in. In the Congo, entire communities have been uprooted by armies, militias, and crime syndicates from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi who are after riches and access to roads to transport them. Murder, rape, and brutality are the way of life for the forced laborers who work under horrible conditions to extract the mineral.

To obtain coltan, one must dig large quantities of earth and wash the dirt to separate the lighter soil from the denser coltran. The resulting black mud is then sold to processors, who extract tantalite from the material. The United Nations is trying to institute sanctions against coltan exploitation, but are having limited success.

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