Columbite-tantalite — coltan for short — is a dull metallic ore. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Virtually every cell phone and computer in existence uses tantalum in its production.
Tantalum itself is not particularly toxic, although it is a heavy metal. The greater problem is that its relative scarcity has led to staggering prices (up to $400 a kilogram in 2000) which has prompted a massive mineral rush in areas such as the Congo. Unfortunately, it has been used to fund the bloody civil war there. In fact, probably most of the coltan in the Congo is used to fund war; in 1997, the pre-war days, the Congo only produced 2.5 tons of coltan, but in 1999, they produced 70 tons. Since usually there isn't a lot of new enterprise in war-torn counties, it seems plausible that a lot of these exports were going to fuel militias.
What does it mean. Well, one thing is means is that is there is a mineral rush going on, and generally mineral rushes, such as the California Gold Rush, destroy the environment. We can also add prostitution, price gouging, and slave and child labor into the mix as well. Finally, most of the native bushmeat is slaughtered for food for the miners, including elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, buffaloes and antelopes. It's really not a nice process.
I often find it hard to find stories on the social responsibility aspects of green computing; other items, such as power consumption, are much more plentiful. But coltan is an example of such, as the demand for the mineral is directly linked to the explosion in computing devices. Since it is impossible to tell if particular manufacturers are receiving their tantalum from the Congo, I think the best use of this information for CIO's is to put another tally mark in the box marked 'Reduce'.