Coltan, Tungsten & Tin

Where are coltan, tungsten and tin produced with forced labor?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2012), coltan, tungsten and tin, three widely-used minerals, are all produced with forced labor and child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Department of Labor also reports the use of child labor in the mining of tin in Bolivia. As the labor conditions for each mineral are similar, this guide will address the three minerals jointly.

What does forced labor in mineral production look like?

Local organizations and international organizations working in the DRC have reported incidences of forced labor in mining. One report, which surveyed local advocates, included forced labor, along with sexual violence and land disputes, as issues urgently needing attention. Forced labor takes a variety of forms. In some cases, the forces that control mining sites, often representatives of the armed forces or rebel groups, require local miners to work without pay at their mining site for short periods of time -- a process known as "solango" (Pöyhönen et al. 2010). Free the Slaves identified a number of other manifestations of forced labor, such as debt bondage, resulting from overpriced supplies, forced labor in local militias, and forced marriages (Fitzpatrick 2010).

Mineral Production and Supply Chain:

According to the Electronics Industry Transparency Initiative, “10 million people (16%) of the Congolese population are directly or indirectly dependent on small scale mining.” Currently, mining associated with forced labor and other human rights abuses is largely limited to the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. After the ore is mined it is sold to trading houses and then exporters, who sell it to refiners. It is then made into electronics components (Prendergast and Leshnev 2009).

As Global Witness (2009) notes, “when it comes to tracing supply chains back to their sources, refiners are the critical link. After the mineral ore is refined into metal, it becomes impossible to distinguish tin or tantalum that originated in Congo from other sources, and supplies from all over the globe are mixed together at this step in the chain. This is why it is essential that these companies take pains to document where they are sourcing from and make their records subject to independent audits.” Challenges in the supply chain include the dispersed and informal nature of mining, illegal transfer of minerals from the DRC to Uganda, Rwanda and other neighboring countries, and the informal nature of mining and the international supply chain.

According to the U.S. Geographical Survey (2010), the DRC was the world’s fifth largest producer of coltan (tantalum) and tin (cassiterite), but was not among the top global producers of tungsten. Global Witness (2009) reports that the largest purchasing countries of coltan are Belgium, China, Thailand and South Africa. The largest purchasing countries for tin are Belgium, Thailand, the UK, Malaysia and Rwanda, and the largest purchasing countries of tungsten are Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, China, and Austria. For electronics purchased in the US, minerals are usually shipped and processed in Asia before being sold as finished products.

How does forced labor in coltan, tungsten and tin affect me?

Coltan, tungsten and tin are commonly used in electronics such as cell phones and computers.


Case Study

Conflict Minerals in the DRC

Conflict between government military groups, local militias, and armed groups based in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda has been ongoing in the DRC for more than 15 years, resulting in more than five million deaths. Sales of coltan, tungsten and tin have allowed each of these groups to continue funding the conflict. Global Witness (2012) has recorded prevalent corruption in the mineral sector which directly benefits the military.

The United Nations Security Council has issued a number of resolutions regarding the DRC with specific reference to conflict minerals. Additionally, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report which outlines human rights abuses from 1993 to 2003 and “sets out measures to hold perpetrators of the most serious crimes to account. Recommendations include setting up a special court or chamber in an existing Congolese court” (Global Witness 2010). 

In July 2010, the U.S. Congress passed Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which “requires companies using cassiterite, coltan, wolframite, and gold to find out whether the metals originated in the DRC or neighboring countries.”  If the metals do originate from this area, then the companies must thoroughly review their supply chain to see if the mining of the metals “benefited abusive armed groups in eastern DRC” (Global Witness May 2012). Most recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce threated to overturn important parts of the Dodd-Frank Act.  Microsoft, General Electric and Motorola Solutions announced, in response to The Chamber’s statements, that they did not support any stance against Section 1502.  Rights groups are calling on other major electronic companies to speak out as well (Global Witness June 2012).

The DRC government is also getting involved in curtailing the sale of conflict minerals.  As of February 2012, the government requires by national law, that “all mining and mineral trading companies operating in the country [carry] out supply chain due diligence, in line with international standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to ensure their purchases are not supporting warring parties in eastern DRC.”  The DRC enforced the law last May, suspending two mineral traders who violated the Congolese law (Global Witness May 2012)

What are coltan, tungsten and tin and how are they used?

Coltan: The source of the minerals niobium and tantalum. In the context of the DRC, coltan generally refers to tantalum, which is used widely in the capacitors of common electronics like cell phones and laptops.

Tungsten: Derived from wolframite, tungsten is used in electronics due to its high conductivity. It is also used as an alloy to strengthen steel.

Tin: Often found alongside coltan, tin from cassiterite has a wide variety of uses from the production of tin cans to tin solder in electronics.

Together, these minerals are sometimes referred to as the “3 T’s”, an abbreviation of tantalum, tungsten and tin.

What are governments, corporations and others doing to address forced labor in coltan, tungsten and tin?

The United Nations has a significant presence in the DRC through its Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). As Enough! (2010) points out: “At $1 billion a year, the U.N. peacekeeping mission is by far the biggest investment the international community—and the United States, which pays nearly 30 percent of the tab—is making in support of peace in the Congo.”

A number of due diligence systems have emerged for mineral sourcing in the DRC. The OECD is developing a voluntary due diligence policy for coltan, tungsten, tin and gold mining in conflict and high-risk scenarios. In October 2010 this system was endorsed by 11 African countries, in addition to the existing endorsements. Forced Labor is one indicator in the "intolerable abuses" of this due diligence guide (OECD 2010). The organization Global Witness (2010) has also proposed due diligence guidelines for companies sourcing from the DRC. In the U.S., the Frank-Dodd Act requires companies to ensure that minerals do not contribute to conflict. The tin industry, represented by the International Tin Research Industry (ITRI), has piloted a certification system for tin from the DRC. The Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition has introduced the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative, which will require third-party auditing, to help bring companies into compliance with the law. Participants as of April 2011 included Apple and Intel (Schwartz 2011).

A number of international organizations focus on labor abuses in the mineral sector of the DRC. In addition to Global Witness, these include Enough! and its RESOLVE campaign and MakeITFair.

Where can I learn more?

Watch the “Story of Electronics” from MakeITFair.

Read an article from Free the Slaves about the different types of forced labor in mining in the DRC or go in-depth with a report by Global Witness.

Read about the need for a certification system in the DRC mineral sector.


Works Cited:

Electronics Industry Transparency Initiative. “Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Enough! “Congo's Ban on Mining an Incomplete Solution to Conflict Minerals, Says Enough Project.” September 16, 2010.

Schwartz, Ariel. “ Apple, Intel have stopped using conflict minerals.” Fast Company. April 2011.

Fitzpatrick, Terry. “Several Types of Slavery Linked to Congo’s Mining Industry.” Huffington Post. September 2, 2010.

Global Witness. “Conflict Minerals: Legislation.” May 2012.

Global Witness. “Congo government enforces law to curb conflict mineral trade.” May 21, 2012.

Global Witness. “Do No Harm: A guide for companies sourcing from the DRC.”July 8, 2010. 

Global Witness. “Electronics Companies Must Break from US Chamber on Conflict Minerals.”  June 27, 2012

Global Witness. “Global Witness welcomes UN report highlighting link between minerals and conflict in DRC and calls for end to impunity in crimes.” October 1, 2010. 

Global Witness. “Faced with a gun, what can you do?  War and the militarization of mining in Eastern Congo.” July 31, 2009. 

MakeITFair “The Story of Electronics.”

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “OECD standards taken up in fight against conflict minerals.” October 4, 2010.,3343,en_2649_34889_46130881_1_1_1_1,00.html 

Pöyhönen, Päivi, Kristina Areskog Bjurling, and Jeroen Cuvelier. Voices from the inside: Local views on mining reform in Eastern DR Congo. FinnWatch and SwedWatch. October 2010.

Prendergast, John and Sasha Leshnev. From Mine to Mobile. Enough! 2009.

U.S. Department of Labor. 2012 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2012.   

U.S. Department of Labor. 2010 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. December 2010.    

U.S. Geological Survey. 2008 Minerals Yearbook: Congo. February 2010.

U.S. Geological Survey. Minerals Yearbook: Tantalum 2010.

U.S. Geological Survey. Minerals Yearbook: Tungsten 2010