This High Risk Research in Anthropology project is a preliminary investigation into the political economy and social consequences of columbite-tantalite (or, coltan) mining in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From 1998 until roughly 2003, this region was the center of what is widely referred to as Africa's first world war, a conflict that pitted eight African nations against one another, and that has thus far cost the lives of over four million people. At the center of this conflict was a unique ore called coltan, an electrical current conductor used in the making of digital capacitors. Tantalum, which is processed from coltan, is crucial to all digital technologies, including cell phones, pagers, video game players, and digital music players. Both foreign armies and local militias have used the money they earned from the sale of the ore, and other minerals such as gold, to finance and extend their military operations throughout the region. The researchers will visit several Kivu towns and mining sites to develop a greater understanding of how coltan mining and exchange has operated in the Congo, and the effects that the mining of this commodity has had on local communities and their surrounding habitats. The researchers will employ qualitative and quantitative methods to determine 1) how basic modes of livelihood, such as agriculture, and habitats, such as the rain forest, have been impacted by mining and trading; 2) the role of transnational organizations, such as NGOs and churches, in forging global trade networks, and the consequences of these networks for local social and economic life; 3) the extent to which certain groups of people, such as women and youth, have benefited from the trade, and the potential of mining to create sustainable development for Congolese people under transformed political conditions; 4) the relationship between mining and other forms of social and economic activity, such as prostitution and new religious movements, and the social consequences of these changes. If research in this unstable area proves feasible, this project will be the first step in a larger project that will map the modes of social organization and the commodity chains that have made the digital age possible on a global scale. This work would benefit academic researchers, experts on African development, and global policy makers.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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California State University-Stanislaus
United States
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