Blood Coltan: fact-finding documentary on coltan mining in DRC tells the horror like it is

Patrick Forestier, “Blood Coltan” (2007)

Saw mention of this documentary in Arena magazine (December 2011 / January 2012 issue) so I was curious as to what it has to say about the coltan industry and trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As if I couldn’t already guess at what it might say: the insatiable global demand for coltan and other “rare earth” minerals for consumer electronics gadgets fuels an ongoing war which according to the film resulted in the deaths of 4 million people at the time of its making. There are other consequences of the war, some of which the film covers, even if superficially: the mass rapes, the recruitment of children as miners, the corruption in everyday life and the breakdown of traditional life and degradation of modern life in the eastern DRC where the coltan mining industry is based.

The film is structured around a fact-finding visit some French journalists make to the eastern DRC on behalf of an activist to track and describe the process of mining, transport and air-freighting of the mineral: the purpose of the exercise is to highlight the connection between the political instability of the DRC and consumer desire for electronics toys. Along the way the reporters meet a church priest dedicated to fighting the exploitation of his flock and community by outsiders; they also come across a ropey character in the form of General N Kunda who is both a military leader and a spiritual leader peddling a very dodgy form of Christianity to both Christians and Muslims. The film reveals that N Kunda is supported by Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President at this time of writing. The documentary then follows the path unrefined coltan material takes to factories in China which are contracted to Western corporations to refine the coltan and insert the material into consumer electronics goodies.

The film may look very bare-bones and sometimes is barely there but the narration and visit (probably heavily edited to fit a narrative stereotype) provide a definite direction for the images. “Blood Coltan” ends up looking as if it was made for a TV current affairs show and that might have been the original intention. As hidden cameras had to be used to film several scenes, the documentary sometimes is quite jumpy and the visuals are very distracting. There is considerable detail in the descriptions of the coltan trade combined with some very good visual images and often colourful scenery.

Little background history as to why the eastern DRC and the whole country generally are so unstable and dangerous, and the role that Rwanda plays in the country’s ongoing disorder are absent. Viewers can easily get the impression that the DRC has always lurched from one crisis to another with no breaks in-between when in fact throughout its history since independence in 1961, certain deliberate choices were made, politicians were assassinated and Western governments and their intelligence agencies supported a ruler (Mobutu Sese Seko) who violated human rights, suppressed all opposition and generally was a poster-boy for corrupt dealings and hiding vast amounts of money that belonged to his people in overseas bank accounts.

The connection between coltan mined in war zone areas and consumers, the levels of grey middle-men types in-between and the cynical exploitation of children and teenagers either in the mines or in Chinese-owned factories under contract to larger Western corporatons like Nokia are made very clear. There are probably some other issues the film failed to cover which it should have done – for one thing, the film says nothing about the impact that mining for coltan has on animals, vegetation and water supplies and disposal – and likewise there is nothing about the dangers of mining for adults and children alike or of the possibility that deforestation to make way for mines harms landscapes and increases the likelihood of stress on the land resulting in avalanches that could bury mines and the people inside them. There are even indirect effects of coltan mining on the health of the people in the area: in addition to obvious examples of workplace injury leading to permanent disability or even death, the encroachment of coltan mining on places where apes and monkeys live gives people opportunities to hunt these primates for bushmeat, and there is the possibility that exotic diseases may pass from apes and monkeys to humans with devastating results.

Overall this is a good exposition of the coltan industry and trade and of our role as consumers of consumer electronics products in the network that includes shady parties out for a quick buck and no consideration as to whether their activities will harm communities and the natural environment.

 

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