Dr. Jeffrey W. Mantz (George Mason University) and Dr. James H. Smith (University of California, Davis) will collaborate in research on the economic, political, and social consequences of columbite-tantalite mining in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From 1998 until 2003, this region was ground zero for what is widely referred to as Africa's first "world war," a conflict that pitted eight African nations against one another, and which has thus far cost the lives of over four million people. At the center of this conflict was a unique ore,columbite-tantalite or, as it is known in Africa, coltan. Coltan is 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. Over the past ten years, foreign armies and local militias have used the money they earned from the sale of coltan and other minerals, such as gold, to finance and extend their military operations throughout the region.

Mantz and Smith will conduct both extensive survey and intensive ethnographic research on coltan. They will survey a sample of mining towns and cities where coltan is traded to elucidate how coltan mining and exchange operate in the Congo, and the effects that the mining of this commodity have had on local communities and their surrounding environs. Using both extensive survey and intensive ethnographic interviewing, the researchers will investigate the relationship between coltan, conflict, and nation building; how coltan mining has affected the transformation and decentralization of political authority; and, more generally, the effects of coltan on local culture and social organization. In addition, they will map the structure of the process through which coltan is moved from rural mining enclaves, through urban Congolese sites of processing, and out into the world system.

The research is important because coltan is an example of a growing phenomenon: locally grounded commodity chains that are central to the global digital age. The production and sale of these commodities have transformative effects upon not only local economies but also local politics and social organization. The research will contribute to social science theory of the intricate relations between local and global, as well as to better policies for economic development and conflict prevention and resolution.

Project Report

Cultural Anthropology historically has been concerned with attempting to understand the causes and consequences of human variation through the study of behavior among diverse groups of people. For a long time (dominantly up until the 1970s) anthropologists did this by looking at how discrete groups of people live and configure reality. But in recent decades, anthropologists have attempted to turn toward an understanding of the global interdependence of the world's people. This has proven challenging, as the study of human variation requires appropriate methodological attention to the specificity of different ethnographic contexts. One way in which anthropologists have attempted to methodologically resolve that paradox has been through a dogged social and historical analysis of single, globally-significant commodities (sugar, coffee, tea, and salt, to name a few examples). This project examined the interconnection of the world by focusing on the social and economic life of a commodity that is crucial to the global digital age and social-political transformations in the Congo, but whose final purpose (i.e., transformation of this ore into capacitors) is significant everywhere in the world, and essential to the digital age within which we now find ourselves. Coltan, a dense silicate necessary for the production of a range of digital products, and heralded by many scientists as the "holy grail" of the digital age, is mined in the eastern regions of the Democratic of the Congo. Understanding the supply chain of this commodity is essential to economic competitiveness of the United States, as viability of digital technology markets depend on an understanding of the efficacy and stability of the source materials that come from the Congo. Data collected during the course of this project provided us with a range of findings, particularly in light of legislative efforts designed to regulate the trade in minerals such as coltan. Section 1302 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires that the SEC ensure American companies demonstrate due diligence in establishing that such minerals are free from sources enmired in conflict. This regulatory framework has not yet been effectively put into place, because of the complexities of regulation on the ground in the Congo. In fact, the project data suggests that regulatory and development efforts aimed at the Congo have proven problematic in four principal respects. First, international planners and aid organizations, and at their behest the Congolese government following the implementation of the 2010 legislation, have had the tendency to demonize independent artisanal miners, who in practice are often essential for stabilizing these markets and establishing investor confidence in markets for minerals essential to digital products. Given the size of this labor market (hundreds of thousands), and the capacity for these miners to bring in much needed hard currency to stabilize these markets, their role is essential for establishing a peaceful market for those minerals that are essential to American digital industries. A second problem is the tendency for the international community to demonize Congolese mineral traders (comptoirs, mineral accountants; or their more entrepreneurial middlemen, known as négociants) for their role in the conflict. Perhaps one of the greatest hurdles to the stability of these mineral markets is the fact that the castigation of Congolese-branded coltan has historically had, and will continue to have, the effect of abetting the illicit trade; illicit traders (whose minerals end up being branded as originating from somehow else other than the Congo) benefit with each act that harms their well-regulated Congolese competitors. Third there is the problem of coltan laundering (that is, the illicit economy that serves to wash the mineral in such a way as to conceal its origin). Many mainstream policy planners have long operated under the misguided assumption that the quantity of Congolese minerals on the world market is in reality quite small. Some policy analysts have confidently suggested that at the height of the Congolese coltan boom it amounted to no more than a 1-2% of global trade; and even U.S. Geological Survey estimates routinely suggest that the Congo’s trade is eclipsed by its much smaller, resource-poor neighbor Rwanda. The reason why such estimates come in at such suspiciously low numbers is that much of it is trucked out of the Congo illegally and claimed as having been mined elsewhere, most commonly in Rwanda (which most observers agree has little, if any tantalum reserves). This confirms the necessity for getting big data at the ground level on mining activities in this region.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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George Mason University
United States
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