Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a rogue industry that produces financial profit for the various factions of the on-going civil war. This issue has been discussed in artist/activist circles for some years already, but there have been no signs for any solution to this problem.
This situation unexpectedly changed last week, when US Senate passed a new bill that requires companies to disclose whether they are sourcing coltan or other minerals from the DRC or adjoining countries. Companies have to provide details about the measures they have taken to avoid sourcing these minerals from DRC armed groups, which are guilty of massacres and other atrocities. This means that companies like Apple, Dell, HP, Intel and Nokia can no longer wash their hands of this issue.
The move by US lawmakers can perhaps be partly explained by commercial motives. The fact that China has become the number one supplier of many important metals has recently raised concern in US and Europe (see article in New York Times). Increased transparency in mineral industry is likely to increase the mineral prices, and this might turn mining and other related industries into profitable business again in Europe and US.
Although the new law can be seen as a positive first step towards more fair consumer electronics, it can also have negative side effects. The new law might result in a complete boycott of minerals from DRC, which might make the local situation even worse. Also auditing the supply chains is a complex task and probably prone to corruption.
According to a report by Finnwatch, the raw materials from Congolese mines are traded by Belgian trading houses to ports in Kenya and Tansania. From there the materials are transported to Thailand, Malesia, India and China where the worlds biggest foundries are located. In the case of Nokia, after the foundry has extracted the metal, there are still 4 or 5 more middlemen before the metal ends up in a ready Nokia product. According to an article in Taloussanomat (in Finnish), Nokia requires their material suppliers not to use minerals from conflict areas, but the new law will require Nokia to do more extensive auditing.