Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo

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Abstract

This paper examines the political economy of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a landscape marked by genocidal campaigns where residents are raped and robbed of cattle and crops, and the extent to which that terror has been abetted by the global market for columbite-tantalite, or coltan. Coltan is a dense silicate ideal for digital technologies, and an estimated 80% of the world's reserves lie in the eastern region of the Congo, where the profitability of its mining to local warlords and the frenetic pace of digital speculation have made both agricultural production and pastoralism untenable. As a result, Congolese have had constantly to improvise production systems in order to survive. This improvisation, easy to gloss over as a survival strategy or adaptation, is in fact performed by creative agents who forge elaborately devised artisanal production systems, at times dangerously against the regimes of local warlords, to meet the insatiable global demand for digital products. Coltan is thus a conductor in a dual sense: of digital capacitors for cell phones or PlayStations, but also of the broader social and political economic processes that underlie the global production of knowledge. Indeed, in both a material and symbolic sense, this ore is a veritable source of information production in the digital age. As such, coltan holds importance for understanding the conflicting and diffuse global role of the digital age, as a source hope and creativity on the one hand; and as an instrument of terror, regimentation, and routinisation on the other.

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