Chronicle of a Crime Foretold
By Rodrigo Palau
On September 13th 2012 the Colombian Police confiscated over 1 million dollars in merchandise from the FARC guerrilla, in a historic operation. What made it a first in history was not the value of the seized goods, or the amount of material found, but rather the nature of what they discovered, as it did not turn out to be any sort of narcotic. Instead the police forces found 17 tonnes of greyish, dull looking rocks. Why would lumps of dust and stone be as or more profitable than illegal drugs, which the FARC have historically used to finance themselves? The answer, quite literally, lies at the tip of my fingers, in the computer I’m using to write this article.
The 17 tonnes of rock turned out to be a mineral known as coltan, rich in the elements niobium (formerly called columbium) and tantalum. These two elements are found in the middle block of the period table, the transition metals. In general, the elements in this block are what we commonly associate with the word “metal”, shiny, strong, and good conductors of heat and electricity. The element tantalum has a large capacitance (the ability to store electric charge) per unit weight, making it excellent for specialized, high technology applications. Just a few decades ago these technologies were quite rare, only advanced military and scientific equipment required such materials. The expansion and development of technology has brought these materials into our daily lives, in computers, smartphones, and similar gadgets, creating a booming demand.
Coltan mining attracted international attention in the middle of the last decade, when it was found that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s largest producers at the time, the environmental impact of the mines was threatening the survival of the mountain gorilla. As international concern grew over this devastation, and the fact that the DRC is in a politically unstable region, companies and governments began to look for other sources. Countries around the globe realized that the stakes were very high, to the extent that when mines were found in Venezuela, President Chávez quickly militarized them.
Across the border in Colombia the government confirmed, in 2009, that deposits had been found in the east of the country; a sparsely populated region of great environmental importance, as the Amazon rainforest begins there, and home to many indigenous peoples. Even though the export of coltan was banned, small-scale illegal mining of the mineral grew rapidly. The FARC guerrilla, who operates in these territories, at first forcibly charged a “toll” to allow smugglers to carry out their activities, but then realized that the distribution and transportation networks used for drugs could also be used to commercialize the mineral and decided to engage directly in the mining business, answering the question of why on earth a drug-trafficking organization would smuggle lumps of rock.
The tale of easy money, absence of strong institutions and illegality is a worryingly common one in Colombian history, though it is not too late for the government to act, especially now that peace talks with the guerrilla are underway. Nonetheless, global picture is of great concern, not only with coltan, but in general that the speed at which science and technology develops has the ability to dramatically transform economies. We often hear that technology has revolutionized society by means of what it can do; rarely do we remember that it can also do so by means of what it is made of.