Coltan is a metallic ore found mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has unique properties for storing electrical charge: it is a vital component in the capacitors in mobile phones and circuit boards.

High demand by phone manufacturers in early 2001 caused the price of coltan to rise to as much as US$600 per kg; a year earlier it was valued at only US$65 per kg. The US alone used over 600 tonnes in 2001.

80% of the world's known coltan supply is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where miners can earn as much as US$200 per month, compared with a typical salary of US$10 per month for the average Congolese worker. This, together with high prices on the international market, makes coltan an extremely valuable resource to miners and middle men.

A UN report noted that all the parties involved in the local civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of coltan. One report suggested that the neighbouring Rwandan army made US$250 million from selling coltan in less than 18 months, despite there being no coltan in Rwanda to mine. The military forces of Uganda and Burundi are also implicated in smuggling coltan out of Congo for resale in Belgium.

The lives of people who lived in the main areas where coltan is mined have been severely disrupted; many have had to leave their homes as the incoming miners and rebel armies clear the forests and sources of livelihood. This part of the Congo is also the home of the Mountain Gorilla, whose population has been decimated. Destruction of their habitat and the sale of gorilla meat to the miners and rebel armies has reduced the gorilla population in that area by half, to some 130.

Ironically, it was concern about the dwindling gorilla population that prompted many companies to demand that their coltan comes from legitimately mined sources and is not a byproduct of the war. The Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund launched a £1 million campaign to combat the impact of coltan mining in eastern Congo, and Leonardo Di Caprio has launched a campaign to promote gorilla-safe mobile phones. One of the world's largest users of coltan asked its suppliers to certify that coltan ore does not come from Democratic Republic of Congo or from neighbouring countries though few other sources of coltan are available.

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