What is tantalum?
The chemical element tantalum is most commonly used in developing electronic equipment such as mobile phones, DVD players, video game consoles and computers. Tantalum is found and mined in many parts of Africa, but is frequently linked with the conflict supply from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where mines are often controlled by rebels who extort the mine owners, impose forced labor conditions on workers and disregard the environment.
Developing a conflict-free supply chain
To help regulate the market for tantalum and support a reliable conflict-free supply chain, Global Advanced Metals (GAM), an Australian-based RCF portfolio company, became an early and strong advocate for an audited tantalum mining, transport and export process in the early 2000’s.
This action led to establishing an industry wide standard audit system called the ‘Conflict Free Smelter’ and the launching of the ‘Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’ (EICC), which GAM joined in 2009, to ensure smelters around the world bought only certified conflict-free material. The goals established by a conflict-free industry are to:
- Ensure mineral trade does not contribute to human suffering; and
- Ensure ongoing trade with legitimate artisanal miners to promote local economy and community development.
In 2010, GAM became the first smelter operation of any type of metal to be officially declared conflict-free while the results of GAM and many other industry participants’ efforts include:
- Increased living and safety standards for central African artisanal miners;
- Fair market price to legitimate miners and traders; and
- Increased industry supply stability.
GAM has received significant recognition for their contribution from many throughout the supply chain, including an Intel award for enabling achievement of their goal of a “conflict free microprocessor by December 2013” and an award from Intel in July 2014 for leadership in establishing audit processes.
Conflict-free supply chain challenges
A conflict-free tantalum supply chain is still not without its challenges and members of the industry seek to continuously educate their key stakeholders on supply chain facts for a fully informed approach to compliance and improvement. There is also active engagement in Central African countries to help ensure that their miners who are legitimate conflict-free businesses, particularly within the DRC, are still able to receive market prices for their product and help to sustain their communities.
Next steps for conflict-free metals
The industry participants still recognize that there is more to do as they work to extend traceability programs throughout Central Africa, and continuously improve living and working conditions and fair trade opportunities. Industry support, education and stakeholder engagement is an ongoing process but serving to improve the transparency of the tantalum industry. It’s also serving to promote its growing conflict-free reputation among the end users including Intel and Apple who have made public announcements about their ‘conflict free’ sourcing status.