Jul 262008
The gaming internets were buzzing the last few days about a widely-publicized report from Toward Freedom that civil war and ongoing militia activity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in part been fueled by the demand for coltan, a source of the tantalum powder that is necessary for capacitors in consumer electronics. Of course, this isn’t a new issue, just a new press release, in which the Playstation 2 in particular is singled out as a cause of conflict. This would be an excellent reason to dislike gaming consoles were it not inflammatory nonsense.

It would be foolish to deny the destructive effects of coltan demand, of course. Although the civil wars in the DRC had political origins, the conflict was sustained in part by demand for this mineral resource. Neighboring countries used militias in the DRC as proxies to ensure access to coltan, which they then sold to a number of foreign companies, which then resold it to various manufacturers, including many American makers of capacitors. Prices for tantalum spiked significantly in the years 1999-2000, providing an even stronger incentive for the DRC’s neighbors to seize its rich reserves of coltan. Conflict and deficiencies in infrastructure have at times limited industrial mining of coltan, meaning that it is often mined using less safe artisanal techniques, and often by children. While many responsible companies have taken steps to ensure that they do not use any coltan illegally seized from the DRC, monitoring any supply chain of this kind is very difficult and there are strong incentives for bad actors to lie. Moreover, the greatest damage was done by the ’99-’00 price spike; adopting supply controls now can’t undo what happened. The Toward Freedom article attributes the spike (and ongoing demand) to the Playstation 2. This is at best a highly selective interpretation of history.

Consider that as of 2007, the total number of cellular phone subscriptions worldwide was estimated at 3.3 billion, while the total number of PS2s sold to date is something like 150 million. According to statistics found at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association website, the number of cellular phone subscriptions in the United States in 2000 was more than 100 million. By 2003 the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States alone exceeded the number of Playstation 2 units sold worldwide in the entire production run to date. Keep in mind that those cell phone users are changing their phones regularly: the number of used and discarded phones in the United States (which has a low cellular penetration rate) substantially exceeds its human population. As such, we should expect that the actual number of cellular phones used by human beings since their introduction is significantly higher than the number of subscriptions, perhaps by a factor of two or more. Why blame game consoles for the coltan demand, then, rather than the far more prevalent cellular technology?

Of course, the demand for coltan doesn’t end with game consoles or cellular phones. Tantalum is used in virtually every modern piece of electronics equipment, including pagers, laptop computers, digital cameras, and inkjet printers, as well as artificial joints, film, and various tools. Why blame game consoles for the ongoing conflict when their sales and usage are completely dwarfed by these other applications? The turn of the century saw a massive expansion in the use of all manner of electronics, all over the world. All of these factors contributed to the tantalum price spike. Yes, the 2000 shortfall of PS2s played a role, but the 6-fold change in price that year could not have happened without an existing huge demand for phones and laptops, and serious structural problems in the tantalum market.

How, then, did this conflict come to be known as the “Playstation War”? Reporter John Lasker doesn’t provide any answers. He certainly doesn’t quote anyone on the subject and it’s not clear to me that the words “Playstation War” were used in reference to this conflict at any point before he did so in this article. In a fit of fairness late in the piece, Lasker acknowledges that the spike in tantalum prices that provided incentive for neighboring countries to interfere in DRC affairs was the result of multiple concurrent technology booms, but any good journalist knows that readers remember the lede. I don’t know why Lasker made the choice to put the console reference so high up in the story, but doing so was inflammatory, irresponsible, and counterproductive.

The world does not have vast and plentiful reserves of tantalum, and existing electronics that contain tantalum are, in general, not properly recycled. Continued strong demand for consumer electronics and the still-increasing penetration of cellular phones in the global market are combining to bring the price of tantalum back up. Thus, a rejuvenation of resource warfare in central Africa is becoming increasingly likely. The best defense against this scenario is for consumers to keep strong pressure on manufacturers and regulators to prevent “blood coltan” from making its way into consumer goods. The typical purchaser of a cell phone doesn’t know anything about tantalum or its uses, and in fact the typical American probably couldn’t tell you what continent the DRC is on. Awareness, then, is a precious commodity, especially for an advocate-journalist. However, awareness is diminished when you make game consoles into a scapegoat.

Even if you manage to heighten awareness of mineral wars in Africa with a piece like this, no good is done if the reader doesn’t make the proper connection with his own life. Can you imagine a person reading the lede paragraph on his laptop or cell phone and cursing those darn gamers for carelessly supporting resource wars? I can imagine nothing else. Calling the conflict a “Playstation War” allows the non-gaming reader to shift the blame onto those darn gamers and ignore his own contributions to resource scarcity and conflict.

Are gamers to blame for the sustained conflict in the DRC? Sure they are — to precisely the same degree as anyone who owns a cell phone, laptop, digital camera, artificial joint, anti-lock braking system, etc. All of us should try to be conscious of the origins (and destinations, you non-cell-phone-recycling jerks) of the materials in our electronics, and pressing the companies that make them to ensure that our sale price doesn’t subsidize war in Africa. Inordinately emphasizing the importance of game consoles in the financial origins of war in the DRC, however, lets non-gamers think they are off the hook, and amounts to little more than blaming the “other” for the sins of all. A putatively progressive organization like Toward Freedom should be capable of recognizing that, and ought to feel ashamed at having done so.

  3 Responses to “The coltan controversy”

  1. Not casserlite, cassiterite. I always type that incorrectly for some reason.

  2. pish posh. everyone knows that the coltan shortage is due to the agents of skynet hoarding it in preparation for judgement day

  3. I find it odd that the author writes that Playstations are not responsible for the war in the DRC. Who cares? Any blood on a PS2 or PS3, or cellphone, or any high-end electronic device is just that – BLOOD! Who cares what the driving factor is, if someone had to die for you to play your games, it's not only a serious problem, it's incredibly immoral. Wake up!

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