In partnership with Roskill information information services, exploration geologist Josh Powell opens our ‘Tantalum – Resource of the Month’ event with an in depth look at ongoing projects in Rwanda. If you’d like to learn more about this critical resource, Roskill are hosting a 2 day event at the end of this month in London, register *HERE*
Gold has long been searched for across the globe. It has driven countries to madness and war. As the centuries pass other minerals and metals similarly caught the attention of humanity and with the sacrifice of many lives deposits were secured. As the accessible minerals were consumed we went further afield looking for the resources to power our world.
The last century driven by the combustion engine saw the rise of the oil producing nations. Now comes the age of silicon, the world craves faster computers. To satisfy the current demand the world historically has scoured and removed its entrails by our mechanical arms. Whenever a large deposit of potential wealth has been found destruction has followed as interested parties fight for control, this resource curse has spent millions of souls and millions more will possibly follow in filling humanity’s insatiable appetite.
Nowhere quite like in Africa does this ring more true. As evidenced from the earliest records of the richest man in the world King Mansa Musa (14th century) to the continent’s conquest and exploitation, first by the European powers and more recently the Chinese. Buried deep in the center of this great wilderness, a glimmer of hope shines, struggling to deliver for its people and not be overwhelmed by humanity’s madness for metals.
Fraught with danger on all sides; rebels and anarchy to the west, Muslim incursions from the east, financial madness to the south and a wave of tyrannical laws to the north, Rwanda may stand tall as example to be followed.
Ranking 170th out of 187 countries in GDP per capita, this small hill country with a population of 11 million is seizing its future by ignoring the advice from the West and resisting sirens calls from the East. Implementing high tariffs, reasonable taxes and a clear framework of laws combined with a government oversight on all foreign investment. A substantial increase in tax on NGO handouts, such as t-shirts that destroy local markets, has helped to improve the country’s image.
Tired of being laid up in the global hospital and spoon fed pitty soup by the European countries, Rwanda is trying to stand on its own two feet and, with an 8% average GDP growth over the last 10 years, it may just do it.
This small landlocked country has suffered its fair share of atrocities and is working to improve itself. Thankfully it has a ace up its sleeve which if used carefully will transform this into the Singapore of Africa. This ace takes the form of a high concentration of LTC (Lithium Cesium Tantalum) pegmatites formed million of years ago as large granitic batholiths intruded into the country rock. These pegmatites are well endowed with Tantalum, Tin, Tungsten, Niobium and Rare Earth Elements.
Tantalum is not very common in the crust at an average distribution of 2.5 parts per million. This metal is usually discovered with Columbite in an ore called Coltan. Historically the largest supply of this was as a by product to Tin smelting when it was used as filament for bulbs. As the modern age emerged a new use was discovered for this malleable, corrosive resistant and highly conductive material; capacitors. These are utilised in nearly every single electronic device in the world.
Tantalum represents 55% of the country’s exports by value and currently is mined almost exclusively by hand. Men and boys with spades and pickaxes work from sun up to sun down in tropical conditions, hacking into the mountains, as they follow the surface face of the pegmatite veins. These veins range from centimeters to meters wide and can extend for miles along strike.
The collected material is placed in a hand dug trench (Figure 2) and water is washed over it separating the heavy tantalum and other metals from the light host minerals.
The media is plagued with horrific stories of Coltan being used to fund armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has rightly been labeled a blood mineral. This provides Rwanda with a excellent position to as it is one of the few places in the world where this mineral can be extracted free from death and war. To confirm the provenance of this material the government is considering implementing a form of blockchain security.
You may lament with tears rolling down your cheeks onto the screens of your phones and pads, thinking of these poor humans forced to work long hours to collect a few kg of ore. From my experiences working alongside these men I have only seen smiles. These men have hands of iron and feet of steel making more money in one day then they do in a week of farming. To them mining is an opportunity that has and will continue to enrich them. Even with this inefficient method Rwanda has risen from only a 12% market share in 2000 to 50% in 2014 becoming the single largest producer of Tantalum ore in the world.
Rwanda is trapped in a the classic dilemma that developing countries face; a lack of available capital and experience prevents them from successfully mechanising the process. They are reluctant to let major international companies or the Chinese in as they are only too aware they could lose what little control they have.Tantalum could provide a future for this small country or the resource curse could yet still bring doom. Will international companies play a part in turning turn Rwanda into a new DRC or will the Chinese colonise the richest areas pushing the locals out and exploit this crucial mineral for themselves.
There is hope, the people of this country are not fools and have suffered hardship which has made them wary and wise beyond their years. This cynicism means they do not accept any deal unless its favorable to them. International companies cannot simply roll them over and Chinese firms have to hire locals rather than importing their own workers. Their brutal past provides strong motivation to improve the conditions for their children and most significantly discourages bribery at the higher levels. These factors point towards a bright future and the next few years will be key in determining if for the first time a sub saharan countries can exploit its resources to benefit the wider population with really local economical and environmental concern.
Josh Powell is an experienced British exploration geologist working in the field in Rwanda exploring for new tantalum deposits.
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