Jeff Mantz Lecture on the Trafficking of Coltan in the Congo

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Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Jeff Mantz, from George Mason University, gave a lecture on Thursday, Oct. 24, in St. Mary’s Hall to a crowd of mostly anthropology students and professors. Dr. Mantz is an Economic Anthropologist who has done research in Dominica and The Democratic Republic of Congo. His work is focused on production and is usually multi-sited fieldwork that tries to connect the production to the consumption patterns to reveal how the two affect each other.

This presentation was entitled “The Slow Road to Taturus: Technological Fetishism, Materiality and Trafficking  in Conflict Minerals in the DRC.” It dealt with the research he had been doing for eight years on coltan production in the Congo and the effects on the country and the world. Coltan (or Columbite Tantalite) is a conflict mineral like diamonds because it is a highly profitable mineral that sparked the digital boom in the 1990s-2000s. It is a very good conductor and is used to keep electric charges in everything from computers to cell phones.

Before going into the explanation of his actual fieldwork, Dr. Mantz began with explaining historical and cultural contexts that most people are unaware of in the West. While there are many different factors behind the internal strife in The Congo, one of the most salient being its history of colonization by the Belgians and the following consequences, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was a main point in his lecture. Unknown to most, the first “African World War” occurred from this, ending up involving nine African countries and continuing into the 2000s.

The military coup by Laurent Kabila that deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 led the area to become even more unstable between the Hutu and Tutsi militias, that acting upon their own agendas; this event, the government being ineffective, and the Mai-Mai (a National Congolese front to “repel Rwandans”) all contributed to the unrest. After explaining the complicated politics of The Congo, Dr. Mantz showed us what coltan was and the various agendas that were shaping its production, consumption and exploitation in terms of the people involved.

Profesor of Anthropology Bill Roberts, and former Peace Corps volunteer in The Congo, was struck by how Mantz, “referenced the positive spirit and creative energies of the Congolese.” While Mantz made clear the often invisible lines between countries like the U.S. and The Congo in terms of the trafficking of coltan, he also emphasized how the Congolese are coming up with their own solutions and do not need to be proverbially “saved” by the West. As he related his experiences with talking to informants who had been child soldiers, he mentioned how it is hard to keep track of the dozens of militias in The Congo and also which companies deal with the militias. The non-government organizations (NGOs)  who “document” coltan production and exploitation in The Congo are often wrong in their statistics and do not even go to the coltan mines. Consequently, much of our information about coltan (in the U.S.) is defunct and not at all accurate.

Mantz wanted to show how NGOs, and even our government, are really harming The Congo rather than helping since they use inaccurate information and do not actually ask the Congolese what they want. Senior and Anthropology major Ben Baker said he thought “it was refreshing to hear Mantz insist that Africa does not need saving and that the people there have the intelligence and ingenuity to face the problems themselves.” Mantz himself was a good speaker – despite often going on tangents and using filler words – and the research he has done is extremely important to understanding this increasingly globalized world and how consumption, production, and international politics all intersect.

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