Foldvary: A Tantalizing Catastrophe
|February 26, 2003||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Editorial Update on Pygmies and Tantalum
A Tantalizing Catastrophe: UPDATE
Special Alert from Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
In ancient Greece one of the gods people believed in was Tantalos, a son of Zeus, the supreme deity of the ancient Greeks, god of the Heavens and identified by the Romans with Jupiter, their own paramount god. Tantalos’ credentials were rather less impressive, and his unfortunate fate was to be standing in water, which receded whenever he tried to drink it, and also to be under branches bearing fruits, which he could never reach. The Romans called him Tantalus, from which came our word “tantalize” and the chemical element tantalum.
To “tantalize” means to torment or tease by keeping something that is wanted visible but just out of reach. One is also tantalized with hope that is always disappointed, or by promises made which are then withheld.
Tantalum is a vital ingredient in electronic products. True to its name; there is little of it available in nature. A major source of the raw material is in eastern “Democratic” Republic of the Congo, formerly the Belgian Congo and Zaïre, in Central Africa, whose capital is Kinshasa.
The nonprofit organization concerned with tantalum is the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center in Belgium, Niobium being another chemical element. Its members include companies involved in mining, processing, and manufacturing.
As related by the Center’s web site http://www.tanb.org/webabout.html, in 1801 an American chemist named Hatchett discovered niobium, which he named “columbium.” Niobium usually occurs together with tantalum. A year later Eckberg in Sweden discovered two minerals with an oxide of an unknown element that was difficult to dissolve and frustrating to work with, so he named the element after Tantalus. Its chemical symbol is Ta, with an atomic number of 73 and weight of 180.948.
In 1844, the chemist Rose showed that the Swedish mineral also had another element, Niobium, which he named after Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus. One reason why tantalum is so troublesome to use is that niobium, far more abundant, is chemically very similar to tantalum. But once separated, tantalum has different properties, being twice as heavy as niobium and almost as heavy as gold.
The applications of tantalum listed include a metal powder for insulation and for use as a wire, its use for equipment such as heat exchangers due to its resistance to corrosion, an ingredient in superalloys and in metal cutting tools. About half the usage is as the powder in electronic products, especially the cell phones.
Another website, http://www.cellular.co.za/technologies/phones/tantalum.htm, states that the silver-gray precious metal tantalum is used to make a powder compacted for use in passive capacitors that regulate voltage at high temperatures. The high demand for the metal by uses such as mobile telephones led to a rapid rise of the price of tantalum from $40 to $380 per pound, by the end of last year.
Until recently, most tantalum was obtained as a byproduct of tin smelting. The decline of the tin industry induced the primary mining of tantalite, the principle ore of tantalum and niobium, mainly in Central Africa and Australia. Deposits of the ore columbo-tantalite, or coltan, are mostly found in northeastern D.R. Congo. Now, it is estimated that the Congo alone is the “home” of at least 80% of the world’s coltan reserves, with almost half of it in the Ituri Forest, the ancestral homeland of the Efé, sometimes called “Bambuti” Pygmies (see Nature & Environment).
Thousands of miners have streamed into the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, where they dam and pollute rivers, cut trees, and also engage in wildlife poaching. The area has one of the greatest degrees of biodiversity of any location on earth, including the rare okapi (also known as the “forest giraffe”), over 6,000 elephants, 50 other mammal species and some 329 bird species.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve has been, since 1996, on the World Heritage List of the United Nations agency UNESCO. A year later the inscription “in danger” was added to “World Heritage List.” Now, UNESCO is moving to protect the wildlife.
In January 2000, a project called “Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict: Protecting World Natural Heritage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” was supported with an initial donation of $2,895,912 by UNESCO. These funds were to be shared by five conservation areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Garamba National Park, Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Virunga National Park, Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Salonga National Park (See parks.)
The great danger is that, to protect the wildlife, the miners will be pushed out of the Okapi Reserve into the unprotected southern area, where an imperiled population of only 2,200 Efé Pygmies is courageously struggling to survive. In fact, the 5,000 okapi of the Reserve are much less in danger since there are at least 25,000 more okapi in the wild outside the Reserve, mostly in impenetrable dense southwestern part of the Ituri Forest.
Once out of the Okapi reserve, still in the Ituri forest, with the same unique and irreplaceable biodiversity including okapi, the coltan miners will be able now to freely destroy the animals, rivers and trees. All of these are indispensable for surviving Efé Pygmies and are desperately needed for their rightful livelihood, just as much as the ones remaining in the Reserve, especially since they are now recognized, even officially, as the first inhabitants of all of Central Africa.
The UNESCO officials have so far not acted to protect the ancient population of these endangered human beings who are trying to survive in what is left of their ancestral forest-home. There are absolutely no reasons to justify the non-inclusion of the Pygmies in the noble concept of “World Heritage,” a patrimony of humanity. What about the “Cultural Heritage”? After all, the last two letters of UNESCO stand for “Cultural Organization”
What is needed is for UNESCO to get everyone out of the Ituri forest except for the aboriginal inhabitants, the Pygmies and the non-Pygmy agriculturist villagers who have traditionally lived in the area? Well-trained and well-equipped uniformed rangers should be hired to vigilantly patrol the Ituri Forest. Their only task should be to find and arrest all the poachers, miners, prostitutes and other exploiters who don’t belong there.
It would be an ironic tragedy if the high-tech world’s need for tantalum ended up destroying the ancient primal world of the pygmies, who have lived in harmony with nature in the Ituri, since the dawn of ages. Having survived the wars, diseases, and deforestation, they now face perhaps the greatest threat in their long history.
The catastrophe can yet be averted, but time is short. Fortunately, there is a very effective nonprofit organization, The Pygmy Fund, PO Box 277, Malibu, CA 90265, that is dedicated to the survival of the Efé Pygmies in the area south of the Okapi reserve. It should receive all possible support to help with this crucial new struggle.
Copyright 2001 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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