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Sunday 14 July 2024

Books

Unveiling the hidden violence in the DRC’s cobalt mining industry

8 July, 2024
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Cobalt Red
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 Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red unveils the hidden violence that sustains the mining sector in the DRC and highlights its role in the modern world from our phones and tablets to electric cars.  

Have you ever wondered where the raw materials for your phone battery and other rechargeable devices come from? They’re called lithium-ion batteries, and despite the name, only about 7% of the materials used in these batteries are lithium. Cobalt, a silver-grey metal, constitutes up to 60% and is crucial for stabilising them at higher energy densities, allowing us to store more power. More than half of the world’s cobalt supply is found in the so-called copper belt, which runs through the heart of Zambia and north into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Katanga province. It contains more cobalt than the rest of the world combined, and in 2021, 72% of the world’s supply of the metal was mined from this region. 

Given the way the DRC has cornered the market on cobalt exports, and how reliant we are on rechargeable batteries these days, you could be forgiven for expecting Katanga’s cities to be “boom towns in which fortunes are made by intrepid prospectors.” Siddharth Kara’s book, Cobalt Red, however, meticulously and cogently shows you why it isn’t and shines a spotlight on one of the great invisible crimes of the digital age. The exploitative artisanal mining sector and how it ties into formal supply chains that eventually reach our mobile phones, electric vehicles, tablets and other devices. “Cobalt mining”, he says, “is the slave farm perfected” and none of the major companies we rely on up the supply chain seem to care. The translator for some of his interviews, a man named Augustin, was distraught as he worked through the material that Kara had collected in his years long field work in the region, urging him to tell people in his country that “a child dies in the Congo every day so that they can plug in their phones.” He aptly subtitles the book “How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.” 

Kara’s book isn’t an academic tract or a study relying on data obtained through the DRC’s government or interviews with employees at companies that manufacture products reliant on these types of batteries. It is a gritty investigation in which he personally witnessed the conditions in the DRC mines, taking detailed notes of what he saw and collecting interviews with adults and children (yes, children), who climb into these mines every day without safety gear, sometimes equipped with as little as a pickaxe, in search of cobalt. Kara is a renowned expert on child labour and modern-day slavery and trafficking, having written prior books about these issues, but even he struggles to process what he sees. “I have never seen more extreme predation for profit,” he says, “that I witnessed at the bottom of global cobalt supply chains.” Combined with Kara’s ability to place this enterprise into the broader context of the exploitation of African, and specifically Congolese resources by wealthier countries and large corporations, it makes for a compelling and frightening read. 

Early on, he struggles to hold back his contempt for the implications of what he finds, arguing that it “invalidates the purported moral foundation of contemporary civilization”, as it allows a “vast subclass of humanity” to “eke out a subhuman existence in slave-like conditions at the bottom of the global economic order.” “Less has changed since colonial times than we might care to admit”, he says. The continuities are difficult to ignore. The DRC was initially a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II before Belgium took it over as a formal colony. In both phases, Belgium exploited the DRC’s resources while brutalising its people. Today, Kara calls it a “colony to the world.” In many ways, Congo and its people exist only to serve up the wealth of their nation to a global economy that cannibalises it. In Kolwezi for example, capital of the Lualaba province, Kara says satellite timelapses show the city and its environs change from emerald green to brown, as the arable earth is replaced or poisoned by mines. “Kolwezi is the mangled face of progress in Africa. The hunt for cobalt is all.”  

 

 

 

People working in the mines are at the bottom of a brutal supply chain that integrates the formal and informal labour of Congolese miners into the global economy. Broadly speaking there are two types of mines: industrial ones run by large companies which are usually much better regulated; and artisanal mines, in which people take whatever tools they have and peck at the earth until it yields its treasures. This line often blurs as some artisanal miners informally work on industrial mining sites. The formal mines are typically run as joint ventures between the state-run Gécamines and private international companies, many of which are now Chinese. Miners take the minerals to traders who pay as little as $1 a day. The traders move it to depots, which then send the minerals to be processed, refined, and ultimately incorporated into our products. At every stage, the price of the cobalt increases, with each actor taking a large share of the profit.  

The shift to lithium-ion batteries dates to the 1970s when Arab countries imposed an oil embargo against nations supplying Israel with arms during the October War. This event highlighted the risks associated with over-reliance on oil from the Middle East as an energy source. Exxon initially led the way, and by the 1990s, Sony developed the first commercial-scale lithium-ion batteries. But it was the emergence of smartphones in the late 2000s that really got demand for these batteries surging. In 2007 Apple introduced its first iPhone and Android phones emerged a year later. In 2010 Apple launched the iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab wasn’t far behind. These devices have changed the way we work, communicate and spend leisure time by bringing the world within reach of our fingertips. According to a report by GSM Association, a non-profit that represents mobile network operators, technologies and services related to mobile phones contributed 5.4% to global GDP in 2023. That amounts to roughly $5.7 trillion and around 35 million jobs globally. All these devices need cobalt. “Add in laptops, e-scooters, e-bikes, and other rechargeable consumer electronic devices, and the aggregate amount of cobalt needed from all devices, save those with four or more tyres, adds up to tens of thousands of tons each year,” Kara writes. The huge benefits we reap from cobalt, however, contrast starkly with what that translates into for the people responsible for making it available to us, notwithstanding what they must suffer to excavate it. It is an incredible irony that the material they mine stores power for us whilst their villages even lack access to electricity or clean water. Sexual assault is common, two-thirds of cobalt from the DRC is touched by child labour, the mines are of toxic causing often causing serious illness and workers of all ages often suffer debilitating injuries, when the job doesn’t kill them outright.  

The artisanal mining sector in Kipushi, a town which straddles the border with Zambia highlights these severe conditions. Kara describes it as a “lunar wasteland spanning several square kilometres”, where some “than three thousand women, children, and men shoveled, scraped, and scrounged across the artisanal mining zone under a ferocious sun and a haze of dust.” As he walked through the mine, Kara says several people cast suspicious looks at him, including a teenage mother with a child strapped to her back who caught his gaze. 

This is where he discovered why people don’t just take cobalt, at this stage in heterogenite form, a rock which contains the metal, directly to depots to ensure they can get a better fee for the labour. A man named Faustin told him: “I don’t have a motorbike. Some other creuseurs [diggers] can do the transportation to the comptoirs [depot] themselves, but this is a risk, because you must have a permit to transport ore in Congo.” The permits are apparently too expensive for most artisanal miners which locks them out of the formal market forcing them to accept lower prices for their ore. Another young woman he met at the informal pits in Kipushi, named Priscille, said she worked twelve hours a day, filling one sack and earning around $0.80. Her husband had died of a respiratory illness a year earlier due to his work in the mine, and she had suffered two miscarriages. “I thank God for taking my babies,” she said. “Here, it is better not to be born.” Around 200 km northwest of Kipushi, near a town called Kambove, he reported meeting two other teenagers at an artisanal mine; 15-year-old Nikki and 14-year-old Chance. Nikki had a one-year-old daughter, and Chance’s baby was a few months old. “They woke around dawn each day to trek through the hill to scavenge for cobalt,” he says. Though many companies insist that their own supply chains aren’t tinted by child labour, Kara says these claims are as “meaningless as trying to claim that one can discriminate the water from different tributaries while standing at the mouth of the Congo River.” If the Belgians who once brutally ruled and looted Congo are worse than the “seven plagues of Egypt” as Joseph Conrad put it, you wonder how he’d describe the situation today.  

During his visits to other mines, the tales of people who had been injured provided even more harrowing testimonies. Makono, a 16-year-old boy who lives near the Fungurume mines in the south-central Lualaba province, said he broke his legs and his hip after losing his footing while climbing out of a mine in the area. He lived in a brick house and was sitting inside in the dirt. When Kara visited him, he saw a “festering gash in his right hip and a long scar down his right leg where the doctors had placed a metal rod to support the shattered bones. The wounds appeared infected.”  

“I know my son is dying,” said Rosine, Makono’s mother. “He needs to go to the hospital, but I do not have any money.” She spent everything she had on the initial operation. These people dig up the wealth of their nation, burying their health, their environment’s wellbeing and their lives in these mines. When the mines are exhausted, the DRC will become an even more irrelevant backwater. One student who met Kara mentioned that the country’s population would double in the next generation, while the resources that allow the people to carve out a meagre living would likely be depleted in forty or fifty years. “If our resources are sold to foreigners for the benefit of the political elite, instead of being invested in education and development for our people, in two generations we will have two hundred million people who are poor, uneducated, and left with nothing of value,” said Reine, a student at the University of Lubumbashi. The word parasite doesn’t appear in the book but that is how Kara characterises the relationship between the DRC and the world.  

It is easy to wonder why the DRC’s leaders do not protect their people from such exploitation. Why would anyone tolerate their compatriots being treated with such brutality and indignity? The answer becomes clear when considering the types of leaders that have governed the DRC before and after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. From Belgian colonial rule, which treated the country as its property, to the predatory regimes of Mobutu Sese Seko and the Kabilas, the country has always been in the hands of people committed to maintaining a status quo which enriches them. They all viewed the DRC as a resource pool for the world and its people as expendable workers, conducting themselves accordingly. 

A more pressing concern is the anticipated increase in demand for cobalt with the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The World Bank estimates a potential 500% rise in demand between 2018 and 2050 as governments work towards their climate targets, such as phasing out petrol and diesel cars. Kara doesn’t spend much time exploring the implications of this, as that isn’t the aim of his book per se. However, it serves as a harbinger of worse to come, especially given that discussions about the energy transition often ignore the impact on the people living in the regions where these "critical minerals” are sourced. In short, to save the climate, the DRC and its people need to be sacrificed, despite playing little or no role in creating the climate crisis.  

In his book Violence, the controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek distinguishes between subjective violence, symbolic violence, and systemic violence. Symbolic violence, he says, is the violence inherent in our language, while subjective violence is more familiar to us, encompassing acts such as murder, attacks, and theft, which involve clearly identifiable agents. Systemic violence, Žižek explains, refers to "the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems." Kara pulls back the veils masking the ambient systemic violence that makes WhatsApp messages, electric car drives, and remote work on our laptops possible. He directs our attention to the lives destroyed on the other side of our supply chains and pierces the "debased language" we use to describe our relationship with the DRC, such as global trade, the energy transition, mineral exports, and GDP growth. Kara’s uncompromising investigation doesn’t soften the harsh realities he encounters or their profound implications. He lays it all down, including the moral dilemmas he confronts when asked for help by a mother he met with a sick son. The book serves as a profound indictment of our world, portraying an apocalyptic level of exploitation reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film. Unfortunately, however, it is all too real.