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In the Venezuelan town of Parguaza, coltan is exploited in improvised mines.
After an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists expose about paramilitaries involvement in the coltan trade, Colombia is moving to curb illegal mining of the highly sought after mineral.
Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, travelled to the lawless southeastern corner of the country last weekend and declared his intention to designate the coltan-rich region a “strategic reserve, for national security reasons.”
The mining industry there is currently controlled by what Mines and Energy Minister Mauricio Cárdenas called “shady interests” in a tweet on March 11. A ministry official said Monday that the government eventually hopes to auction off mining permits to legitimate companies, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The groups Cárdenas was alluding to are right-wing paramilitaries and rebels-turned-drug dealers in the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, the FARC. As ICIJ reported earlier this month, those armed groups have coerced the native Indians who live in the region to work the mines or bought their labor with free beer, food, and brand-name athletic shoes. He said that these groups are “a national security concern for us.”
The heavy, black, conductive mineral is used in everything from sophisticated personal electronics to precision weapons. It is used to improve the ability of microchip processors to function in extremely hot or cold temperatures.
Unlike diamonds, the origins of which can be determined via geo-fingerprinting, there is no accurate test to trace coltan. This has made it an attractive new source of revenue for narco-terrorist groups like the FARC.
Their illicit role in the trade may also become an economic concern for the Colombian government, which claims to control 5 percent of the world’s coltan reserves.
Experts think a provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill could label Colombian coltan a “conflict mineral” because of the paramilitaries involvement in the industry. Then even legally mined coltan from Colombia would likely be banned from the U.S. market, where manufacturers annually import about 1.1 million pounds of the 3 million produced worldwide each year.
High quality coltan generally sells for around $50 a pound, but it has spiked to as high as $300 a pound in recent years. An estimated $150 million worth of the mineral is sold each year, analysts told ICIJ. The exact size of the global market is unknown because there is no public commodity price index for the mineral and most purchase contracts are confidential.