The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, with its untapped mineral deposits amounting to $24 trillion USD. Yet, the DRC and the Congolese people have not reaped the fruits of this massive wealth.
This is because the country, for more than 25 years, has been engulfed in conflict, which has evolved from a civil war that several neighbouring countries were involved in to a fight between at least 122 armed groups. Many of the DRC’s mines are controlled by these armed groups, which, through informal deals with some multinational mining corporations, rely on the country’s mineral resources as a way to acquire more arms and gain more power and wealth at the expense of Congolese civilians.
A specific site of conflict is the DRC’s cobalt industry, which many global tech companies and automakers like Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla depend largely on. In recent years, the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rely on sustainable energy have increased the demand for cobalt, a precious component of ion-lithium batteries that power cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.
In 2020 alone, the world consumed 135,000 metric tonnes of cobalt, and the demand for the silver-gray mineral is expected to be six times higher by 2050. Roughly half of the world’s cobalt — 3.4 million metric tons — is concentrated in the DRC. Last year, 70% of the world’s cobalt supply came from the Central African country.
Yet, the intensive mining of cobalt has major impacts on the DRC’s population and environment. So, what are these impacts, and what cost has the DRC paid to supply the world with the cobalt used in our electric cars and devices’ batteries?
Artisanal Cobalt Mines in the DRC: A Horrendous Reality
About 15% of the DRC’s cobalt is produced in small-scale, artisanal mines. Artisanal miners are freelance workers who independently extract cobalt and sell it on the informal market, earning less than $10 USD a day. Working at artisanal mines is associated with the risk of injury or death. This is because miners do not have basic protective equipment like hard hats and vests, and they usually work barefooted and hand-dig ores.
In 2016, a report by Amnesty International found that many artisanal mines are not constructed safely, causing workers to face life-threatening situations in the search for cobalt. Amnesty reported that many workers have lost their lives or suffered serious injuries because of tunnel and pit collapses, underground fires, and suffocation. “[M]ine collapses are frequent,” said Pierre, one Congolese miner who broke his leg due to a tunnel cave-in.
Worse still, the production of cobalt at artisanal mines relies on child labour. The Amnesty report found that many children are involved in difficult tasks like carrying heavy sacks of mineral ore, often sustaining serious bodily injuries. Children also work in an unsafe environment, where they face physical abuse and sexual exploitation, and are exposed to drug use.
In light of these findings, some multinational corporations have pledged not to get cobalt that comes from artisanal mines and instead rely on industrial mines, from which roughly 70% of the country’s cobalt is sourced. Tesla, for instance, signed a deal in 2020 with Glencore, a major mining company that owns the world’s largest cobalt-producing mine in the DRC, to buy around 6,000 tonnes of cobalt annually.
However, six years after the Amnesty report, little has changed. Children still work at artisanal mines and carry out the same arduous tasks for less than a dollar a day, risking their lives just to help their families afford basic necessities. School fees in the DRC are unaffordable for many families, and “the government doesn’t provide money for schools, so parents send their children to the mines instead,” said Albert Mutawa, a manager of an artisanal mine.
By boycotting artisanal mines, thus, multinational corporations neither address child labour nor find solutions to the problems that force children to work – they only evade the moral responsibility that comes with buying cobalt that is mined by children.
Industrial Mines: Far from Ideal
Multinational companies may view that, by depending on large-scale mines, they have fulfilled their duty of getting cobalt from suppliers that do not benefit from child labour and provide workers with ideal working conditions. However, recent investigations by watchdog organizations reveal that industrial mines are rife with problems, including racism, discrimination, human rights violations, and lack of safety.
At the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), which is owned by Glencore and supplies Tesla, miners have expressed dissatisfaction with the inadequate food and water services, despite the high temperatures and difficult and intensive nature of work. “We asked KCC for more water, but they haven’t done anything … I am often thirsty, but I have to endure,” said Andre, who works 11 hours a day.
Other miners have complained about working long hours for wages that cannot cover living expenses. While the monthly living wage of a household of two adults and four children in the Katanga province, where KCC is located, is $420 USD, a miner like Jean who works for 66 hours a week earns $300 USD per month. “It is very difficult; I can only fulfill around 25 percent of my needs … If there were other jobs available, I wouldn’t be there,” said Jean.
Moreover, miners at Tenke Fungurume mine (TFM), one of the DRC’s biggest industrial mines and 80% of which is owned by China Molybdenum, have spoken out against racism and inequality faced on the job. Many workers have claimed they have been discriminated against, being paid less than Chinese workers despite doing the same job. Other workers have insisted they have been insulted and sometimes beaten. “We’re being treated in a very bad way by the Chinese. I’m a victim of assault myself. I was slapped across the face four times,” said Mutamba, a worker at the TFM.
The work environments at this mine and other industrial mines are even worse for people who are recruited via subcontractors. These workers usually receive lower wages than those that mining companies employ directly. They also work without contracts and consequently face the risk of termination at any time.
Health and Environmental Impacts Tied to Cobalt Production
As they keep producing and supplying automakers and tech companies with cobalt, mining companies inflict significant harm on the DRC’s population and environment. There is still little research conducted on the physiological impact of cobalt mining on the DRC. Nonetheless, some studies have found that the particles emitted during cobalt mining can cause cancer, damage to the thyroid gland, heart and vision problems, and vomiting and nausea. Breathing high amounts of cobalt, which seems to be the case in artisanal mines as many workers do not wear masks, can also lead to respiratory diseases like asthma and pneumonia.
According to other studies, pregnant women who live near cobalt mines are also at risk of having their babies born with defects. In Katanga, one couple, Mireille and Gilor, have two children who were born with cleft palates, which affect their ability to speak. One of the questions the parents were asked by the doctor was whether they lived near a mine at the beginning of pregnancy, which actually was the case. “There are links between mining activities and the occurrence of orofacial clefts,” said Sebastien Musanzayi, a pediatric and maxillofacial surgeon in the DRC.
The reason behind these birth defects is that the smoke, dust, effluents, and other types of waste created by cobalt extraction and treatment are discharged into the air and water bodies, causing air pollution and contaminating soil, water, and marine life. To measure the impact of cobalt mining, Mwazo Koya, a professor of public health, conducted a study that collected fish from Tshangalale lake, which is adjacent to mining towns. The study found that the fish was contaminated with many toxic substances, including uranium, manganese, and cobalt. And it is the radiation emitted by these metals when the fish is eaten that can lead to birth defects.
Trading Electric Cars for Congolese Lives
In the name of sustainable energy and decarbonization, mining corporations in the Global North have exploited the DRC’s natural resources and controlled its cobalt industry. This form of neocolonialism has been beneficial to the Global North. Mining companies generate high revenues, and so do vehicles and electronics manufacturers, which are only able to sell customers devices and cars with more advanced batteries because of cobalt.
The DRC, and other mineral-rich countries in Africa, however, have paid the price for this neocolonial project. Despite the world’s reliance on its cobalt, the DRC remains a poor nation – the cobalt industry has not led to economic development in the DRC. In fact, it has poisoned the country’s environment and aggravated the struggles of millions of Congolese workers by violating their rights and offering them unfair wages although they are the backbone of the cobalt industry.
At the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year, over 100 parties, including governments and automotive manufacturers, committed to accelerating the transition to zero emissions vehicles. This comes as part of the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby mitigate climate change. However, future COP conferences first ought to ensure that the rush to embrace green technology does not come at the expense of other countries like the DRC. The climate crisis should not be combated by creating other humanitarian, climate, and health crises. Otherwise, such commitments made at these conferences will only hurt those most vulnerable to a warming planet and the consequent economic collapse.