In an extensive and troubling read, The New Yorker has explored in detail the ‘dark side’ of the Congo’s cobalt rush, which has helped to meet the insatiable demand for the batteries we increasingly rely upon to power electric vehicles and other technologies.
The article opens with the story of a man who started digging for cobalt under his house and neighboring properties in Kolwezi, a city in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Southern Congo is estimated to sits atop almost half the world’s known supply of cobalt and in recent decades, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have moved to the formerly remote area around Kolwezi, with many seeking jobs at industrial mines in the region.
However, many thousands have also become “artisanal diggers”. While some secure permits to work freelance at officially licensed pits, many more sneak onto the sites at night by bribing local police, or dig their own holes and tunnels, risking cave-ins and other dangers.
The report highlights how a rapid increase in mining activity poses a number of ongoing challenges as well as potentially fatal risks, with teenage boys and even young children often working in perilous conditions, while the prostitution of women and young girls is pervasive in mining areas.
The New Yorker reports that thousands of children work in mining in Kolwezi alone, and are often drugged to suppress hunger. The mining activity also has wider health implications. The report highlights a recent study in The Lancet that found women in southern Congo “had metal concentrations that are among the highest ever reported for pregnant women” and that “paternal occupational mining exposure was the factor most strongly associated with birth defects.”
Most of the cobalt in southern Congo now comes from industrial mines, which are largely owned by Chinese companies. The article suggests that at some sites, the treatment of Congolese by their Chinese bosses “is reminiscent of the colonial period”, with illegal evictions and the withholding of wages commonplace, especially since the emergence of COVID-19.
The report highlights how many of the global companies that use lithium-ion batteries periodically respond to public pressure about the conditions in cobalt mines by promising to clean up their supply chains and innovate their way out of the problem. The full article is available to read here.