When first asked by Polity to write ColtanI was thrilled. Tantalum, or ‘coltan’ as it is known in the Congo, was the most topical of natural resources. Allegations were swirling on activist blogs, in academia, and at the United Nations about coltan’s relationship to ongoing violence in the Congo: that it was generating profits for armed groups that were waging war and abusing civilians, and that Western consumers were fuelling the conflict through their demand for electronic products such as mobile phones and laptops containing coltan.
I began by reading everything about coltan that I could lay my hands on and quickly started writing. However, after three months the work slowed. I discovered that much of what had been published on coltan repeated the same arguments, relied on the same incomplete data and failed to ask or answer the big questions about coltan. What I was writing repeated initially these same established views.
For six weeks I stopped work completely. I scratched my head wondering what angle Icould take that was new and different, and that would bring a fresh perspective. Suddenly it struck me that what was most interesting about coltan wasn’t about what was happening on the ground in the DRC, which is where all the journalists and scholars were looking for their story. Rather, it was why an obscure mineral that was little known outside geological and scientific circles a decade ago was suddenly all over the internet and in the media.
Activism about coltan was the story that needed to be told. It was activists and NGOs – with the help of some UN and government reports – that had made coltan topical. I suddenly had a focus and, instead of worrying about whether I was missing something by not doing fieldwork in Congo myself, I started to research coltan initiatives and the activism around them.
There are lessons from my initial writer’s block and subsequent epiphany about the political story about coltan that needed to be told.
First, in this era of globalised information when new information is constantly being produced, good data can quickly be overlooked or forgotten. For example, in 2000 the Gorilla Organization and the Pole Institute did a series of interviews with coltan miners and their families. The interviews were all available online, yet other authors had overlooked them, possibly thinking that the findings were no longer relevant. As it turns out, these interviews were a treasure trove of under-analysed qualitative data that remains pertinent today.
The second lesson is that notwithstanding the scope for further research on coltan mining in Congo, such as anthropological or micro-economic work, geographical proximity to a mining site neither produces all the answers nor generates the most important political questions about natural resources. In fact, being close to the mining ‘action’ can hinder analysis. Reflection from afar, on the other hand, can sometimes generate the best questions and the clearest answers.
Michael Nest is an independent scholar and the author of Coltan.