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September 28, 2004

A public radio commentary

Recently, I picked up a book about spices, although it was really a geopolitical history. It focused on a tiny Indonesian island that became, in the 17th century, a battle ground for the English and the Dutch, with, of course, the natives caught in the middle. They all wanted the nutmeg that grew there. In the 17th century, a man could sell a small sack of nutmeg for enough to build a large house and then retire there in comfort. The value of nutmeg came partly because of its rarity, but also because Europeans thought it had powerful medicinal qualities. So, for two centuries the English and Dutch battled over the Island, decimating it in the process.

At first, when I read of these "nutmeg" wars, I thought how quaint that the European economy should depend on spices from obscure parts of the world. Yet, by the time I finished the book, I realized that my own world operates in exactly the same way.

The electronic network that I live in - my computer, cell phone, and pager - depend on something call Coltan. Spelled C-O-L-T-A-N, it's as magic to us as nutmeg was to a 17th century European.

Coltan looks like black mud. It's name is a contraction of columbium and tantalum. And it's that tantalum that's important to our world. A gray-blue, very hard metal, it's the key element called a pinhead capacitor. These electrical devices regulate the voltage and store energy in cell phones, pagers, and computers. In the last few years alone, tens of millions of these tantalum-filled capacitors were manufactured.

Coltan is found in three billion year old soil, like that of the Rift Valley in Africa, which contains eighty percent of the world's supply. And, of the eighty percent, the majority is in the region.

And much like the nutmeg of the 17th century, Coltan has brought ruin to the Congo. It has made the area attractive to neighboring countries, and Coltan has been a key force in accelerating the civil war within the Congo. By some estimates, these resource-based wars have killed about five million people, and displaced another ten million or so.

No doubt, some generation after us will evolve past cell phones and pagers, and will no longer need to run their world with the tantalum that comes in the magic mud coltan. And, no doubt, they will look back at the coltan wars and think them as quaint as the "nutmeg" wars of the 17th century. The message is clear: As we use our cell phones today, we should remember those nutmeg wars, and keep a careful eye on how our technological systems affects the world.

To use George Santayana's aphorism: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises