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.
Since 2008, I have conducted a total of 12 months of mostly NSF funded fieldwork on the mining of the 3 Ts in Eastern Congo, venturing to some of the most remote places in DR Congo (I anticipate conducting three more months of research in the summer of 2015). This has been very challenging fieldwork that requires hiking to artisanal mines and towns near artisanal mines, places that require having to negotiate multiple state and non-state authorities. In the process, I have learned a great deal about how the work of mining and the mineral trade is organized on the ground, and Eastern Congolese thoughts about the social and moral consequences of the global demand for Congolese mineral wealth. In addition, I have examined the tense relationship between mining and agriculture; the on-the-ground workings of "the" Congolese state and army in different locations; the role that cell phones and digital technologies play in the way the trade is organized and experienced; the relationships that state and military actors have with miners and the mining enterprise (including ascertaining which state and non-state actors collect tax from miners and traders in different locations); and the cultures of mining and mining towns. I have also developed a rather original understanding of the conflicts, which focuses on the primacy of pervasive debt, rather than the "greed" of people acting in the context of a failed state (as the resource curse hypothesis suggests). Rather than assuming that actors in the Eastern Congolese mineral trade are acting criminally or illegally, I examine the social and ontological worlds they are making in and through their "resources." This approach is inspired by a number of Africanist scholars (Mbembe 2000, 2003, Ferguson 1999, 2006, Reno 1999, de Boeck 1998, Golub 2014) who have argued that the areas around mineral enclaves are sites for the creation of new forms of sovereignty and modes of economy that vary tremendously from place to place, and that newly emergent social and political forms are being generated in these sites. There is also a related anthropological literature concerning the cultural and economic life of miners and mines, which argues that extractive economies offer a unique and rich vantage on how capitalism operates and is perceived by local actors (Ballard and Banks 2003, Nash 1993, Taussig 1980; see also Tsing 1993 on extraction more generally) While there is thus a definite political economic aspect to my research, I have worked hard to understand the cultures of mining and extraction, and how new social strategies and modes of temporality emerge from the demand for minerals. Over time, radical price fluctuations, and their impact on peoples' experience of reality and temporality, have become central to my work, framing many other concerns. If price fluctuations bring precarity and "disorder," as Congolese put it, then miners and traders try to build predictable, incremental, and sustainable relationships by controlling their experience of price. They do this, by and large, by developing social networks with diverse groups of people in multiple domains.