Minerals:  Tin, Tantalum and Tungsten

What are the 3Ts and where do I use them?  | What impact does the extraction of the 3Ts have in central and eastern Africa? | Resources

What are the 3Ts and where do I use them?

The term ‘the 3Ts’ refers to tin, tantalum and tungsten.

Tin ore (Cassiterite)

Cassiterite is used on the circuit boards on most electronic devices, which is mined in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s low melting point mean that it is used as a major ingredient in soldering compounds that are employed to connect elements in electronic circuit boards in laptops and mobile phones.

It is found in the provinces of North and South Kivu in the DRC. Although it is a relatively small percentage of world supply with the main suppliers being Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa.

There are 10 main smelting companies which process over 80% of the world’s tin. They are almost all based in East Asia.

Tantalum ore

Coltan or columbite-tantalite is used in most portable electronic devices, such as the capacitors that facilitate text messaging and other mobile phone capabilities. The smarter the phone, the more tantalum capacitors it includes in it, a result of tantalum’s strong heat-resistant qualities. It is also one of the few metals resistant to acidic solutions and so is used widely in medical tools and implants.

Four companies make up the majority of the chemical processing market, based in Germany, the US, China and Kazakhstan.

Tungsten ore

Wolframite, a tungsten ore, is an important conductor of electricity. The dense metal retains high amounts of heat without melting and is therefore used in air and spacecraft  (e.g. for rocket nozzles). It is also used in the filaments of light bulbs and heating elements.

There are several tungsten processing companies in China, Austria and Russia.

An infographic showing the uses of Congo's 3T's

3ts?1How do the 3Ts fit into my mobile?


What impact does the extraction of the 3Ts have in central and eastern Africa?

A map showing DRC's position in AfricaDemocratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Tin – Estimates of eastern DRC’s contribution to the world market equates to 24,000 metric tonnes of tin (6-8% of overall global production).

Tantalum – As of 2008, eastern DRC contributed 15-20% of global tantalum production. It is home to 80% of the world’s reserves.

The armed groups that remain in the DRC continue to illegally tax miners in order to fund their warfare according to recent research from UN Security Council group of experts. Timo Mueller from Enough Project estimates that $180,000 is gained from this monthly, which enables the M23 armed group to continue to persevere and recruit despite the recent internal divisions which are reported to have drastically reduced the number of people in the group and military capabilities.

As with gold, smuggling the 3T’s in eastern DRC continues despite international efforts to reduce illegal mining and illicit trade in minerals. Tagging and certification measures identifies the origin of the minerals and manufacturers and smelters around the world are required to purchase only tagged minerals. However, a UN Group of Experts report reveals that the 3T’s remain largely under the control of armed groups in the DRC. Foreign armed groups are said to collaborate with local armed groups in the DRC and corrupt elements in top tiers of the DRC army in order to mine in remote areas of the country and trade the minerals. International traders with connections fuel the illicit trade in minerals by routing them through official channels. Smugglers are able to take the minerals through eastern DRC’s porous borders.

The UN reports that it is because of the finance gained from illicit trade in minerals that armed groups such as the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL) (Burundi), Allied Democratic Forces of Uganda (ADF) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), can continue to expand and recruit in the Great Lakes region. Apparently, “More than 95 percent of their arms and ammunition are being obtained through FARDC…FDLR takes advantage of widespread indiscipline and a near total absence of stockpile control”. Minerals are said to be the life-blood of the armed groups.

Despite attempts at increasing transparency among smelters to declare the source of minerals, ironically this has strengthened smuggling networks.

“Because no tin, tungsten or tantalum ore from the Kivus or Maniema is currently accepted by smelters and refiners seeking conflict-free smelter status, this has resulted in an increase in unrecorded trade and fraud as producers from these provinces have sought ways to remain in business by getting their material onto the international markets,” reported the UN.

There are also suggestions from Global Witness, that minerals that have been stockpiled in eastern DRC because of a ban on non-industrial mining activities are on there way to be exported by traders in Goma. With Congolese law stating officially that proceeds of minerals trade are not supporting armed groups, Global Witness state that there needs to be assurance that the traders are not purchasing the stockpiled minerals which are related to conflict. The main problem identified is the military presence at mines, which hinders the process of tracing mineral shipments.

A map showing Rwanda's position in AfricaRwanda

Rwanda is known for it’s huge cassiterite deposits and ranks number eight in the world for un-melted tin which equates to 1.5% of global tin production.

Most recently, the Rutongo Mines located 20km north of Kigali, are among the sites that have become profitable for the surrounding communities, investors and the country as a whole. If “structural bottlenecks” are addressed, the country could increase production levels fivefold. The current focus is on enhancing human capacity and recruiting a firm to build a mineral rights management system which would assist transparency, management and regulations of Rwanda’s four main exports; the 3T’s and gold.

Rwanda is said to have taken the lead in the region for implementing a tracing and tagging system (whereby minerals are easier to trace back to their source). However, many minerals are being smuggled into Rwanda and are registered through the sale of illegal tags and then mixed in with the clean mineral extracts which makes it impossible to trace, states a UN report. Resource smuggling remains a serious problem, especially when linked to fund rebel movements.

A recent report from Global Witness revealed that tin and tantalum are smuggled into Rwanda, where they are laundered through the country’s domestic tagging system and exported as ‘clean’ Rwandan material. A UN Group of Experts report stated that “Official exports of tin ore from eastern DRC, with or without Tin Supply Chain Initiative tags, continue to transit through Rwanda.”The UN claim that fraudulent tagging of minerals is rife in Rwanda and threatens the country’s credibility. Between March and July 2011, Rwandese authorities seized 67.5 tonnes of untagged minerals near the DRC border. An additional nine tonnes were seized in Rwanda’s capital Kigali in August 2011. In June 2011, Rwandese authorities seized 11.5 tonnes of tin ore from Retired General Kamwanya Bora, who runs businesses in DRC’s Goma region.

A UN report from 2001 states that: “Presidents Kagame [Rwanda] and Museveni [Uganda] are on the verge of becoming the godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have indirectly given criminal cartels a unique opportunity to organize and operate in this fragile and sensitive region.”

The above would explain why Rwanda was officially reported to have produced $8 million worth of tin ore but officially exported $30 million worth of tin. Strong evidence shows that the excess tin comes from DRC. There is then great difficulty in tracing the origins of minerals.

Today there remains a tense relationship with DRC on one side and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. Both Congo wars gave way to exploitation of resources of the east of Congo by the national armies of Uganda and Rwanda. There are major disputes over export of minerals by, for example, Rwanda. Rwanda is claimed to be very poor in minerals, yet its exports in minerals are substantial. It is claimed that this is because minerals make their way illegally from Congolese mines to the Rwandan market, resulting in the minerals being part of Rwandan export, not Congolese. However, this is disputed as Rwanda is finding more of its own resources.

The facts remain that both the Ugandan and Rwandan military have historically taken advantage of their positions within eastern Congo, partially contributing for the strained relationships between the two countries with their neighbours in Kinshasa.

A map showing Burundi's position in AfricaBurundi

The tin, tantalum and tungsten that is produced in North and South Kivu is benefiting rebels and members of the state army as they are smuggled out of the Congo into Burundi as well as Rwanda for export. A recent UN report also confirms the wider role of Europeans in the arming and training of armed groups in Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The president and military commanders of FDLR  for example, are said to be based in Germany. Roman Catholic networks are even said to be linked to the FDLR.


Another angle at looking at the trade has been suggested by Kambale Musavuli, of the Washington DC-based NGO, Friends of Congo. He suggested that, “people need to be clear who we are fighting in the Congo… We are fighting Western powers, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are arming, training and equipping the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries”.

To read about what is being done to reduce the negative impact of minerals on central and eastern Africa visit our initiatives page.


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