‘Here it is better not to be born’: Cobalt mining for Big Tech is driving child labor, deaths in the Congo
During one of his many visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Siddharth Kara, an author and Harvard academic who has spent 20 years researching modern slavery, met a young woman sifting dirt for traces of cobalt.
Priscille told him she had suffered two miscarriages and that her husband, a fellow “artisanal” miner, died of a respiratory disease.
“I thank God for taking my babies,” she said. “Here it is better not to be born.”
It is just one of many devastating personal accounts in Cobalt Red, a detailed exposé into the hidden world of small-scale cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The “quaint” moniker of artisanal mining, Mr Kara points out, belies a brutal industry where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children dig with bare hands and basic tools in toxic, perilous pits, eking out an existence on the bottom rung of the global supply chain.
The miners are the first step in the race for precious metals and minerals by some of the world’s most powerful companies, with multibillion-dollar valuations and whose founders and CEOs are household names.
If you own a smartphone, tablet, laptop, e-scooter, electric vehicle (or all of the above), then it is a system in which you are unwittingly complicit.
“At no point in human history has so much suffering generated so much profit and been directly linked to the lives of billions of people around the world,” Mr Kara writes in the book.
Around 75 per cent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the DRC -- and the world cannot get enough of it. The rare, silvery metal is an essential component to every lithium-ion rechargeable battery, a necessary part of the booming electric vehicle (EV) industry.
The number of EVs are increasing exponentially as most high-polluting economies have made them integral to decarbonising emissions-heavy transport sectors.
There were 7.8 million EVs sold in 2022, according to The Wall Street Journal. That number is set to explode to 66 million by 2040, according to BloombergNEF’s Economic Transition Scenario.
‘The slave farm perfected’
For centuries, the DRC, a landscape of near unmatched natural resources, has been looted by colonizers: first for slaves, ivory and gold and then rubber, copper, palm oil and minerals.
The genocidal regime of Leopold II, the Belgian king who murdered and mutilated as many as 10 million Africans at the turn of the 19th century, was followed by decades of Western-backed, kleptocratic leaders who enriched themselves and their cronies, leaving the country to wither. By most metrics of health, wealth and progress, the DRC ranks among the worst in the world.
The DRC’s industrial mines are typically structured as joint ventures between the national government and foreign operators, for the most part Chinese companies. China produces three-quarters of the world’s refined cobalt, the keys to the kingdom in the battery market.
“Everyone’s playing catch up. China cornered the global cobalt supply chain before anyone knew what was going on,” Mr Kara told The Independent in a phone interview earlier this month. “Ten years later, western Europe and North America suddenly realize this vital mineral is required for our green energy future and gadget device-driven economy, and they can’t access it except through China.”
About two-thirds of cobalt mining is carried out in industrial mines with the use of heavy machinery, and accompanied by health and safety standards.
Artisanal production makes up the remaining share. However, Mr Kara writes in Cobalt Red that “[b]ecause ASM is almost entirely informal, artisanal miners rarely have formal agreements for wages and working conditions.”
There are an estimated two million artisanal miners in the DRC, according to DelveDatabase, a global online data platform.
Cobalt deposits form near the surface like “raisins”, meaning the mineral can be dug in shallow pits. In some cases, industrial mines dump tons of stone and dirt beyond their compounds. Mr Kara describes in his book how he witnessed hundreds of children crouching in the rubble, picking for cobalt fragments.
The author describes the appalling living conditions of Congolese artisanal miners. Many live in tarp-covered shacks with no sanitation, medical care and few opportunities for education. Access to electricity is sparse; few miners have ever seen a cameraphone.
Cobalt Red also documents many unreported deaths, including those of children buried alive in makeshift mining tunnels, and their bodies never recovered.
The author shares the stories of Congolese miners who have experienced life-changing injuries, sexual assault, physical violence, corruption, displacement and abject poverty.
“Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected,” Mr Kara writes.
Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe in, and can be found alongside traces of radioactive uranium. Cancers, respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, headaches and painful skin conditions occur among adults who work without protective equipment.
Children in mining communities suffer birth defects, developmental damage, vomiting and seizures from direct and indirect exposure to the heavy metals.
Mr Kara describes children standing knee-deep with their bare skin in toxic pools, and babies carried in slings on their mothers’ backs into pits. Female miners, who earn less than the average two dollars per day paid to men, typically work in groups as sexual assault is common in mining areas.
In one passage, Mr Kara meets Bisette, a mother whose son was buried alive with others after a mining tunnel collapsed. Later in the book, the author learns that Bisette’s nephew died in another mining tunnel collapse.
“Our children are dying like dogs,” she cries.
The tunnel collapse at a mining site in central DRC on 21 September, 2019 killed 63 men and boys who were buried alive, Mr Kara reports, with only four bodies recovered. No one accepted responsibility for their deaths and the accident was never acknowledged.
“All the death here counted for nothing. The loot is all,” Mr Kara writes.
‘It’s not going to Mars’
To enter the world of artisanal mining involved great personal risk for the author. The DRC’s mining operations are heavily-guarded by soldiers from the DRC’s Armed Forces or company-paid militias, and located in areas far off the beaten track and known to erupt in conflict.
Throughout Cobalt Red, Mr Kara protects the identities of his guides and the miners who speak to him, for fear of deadly reprisals on them and their families.
“There are many mining areas I never got into and they’re heavily guarded. It’s all by design, these layers of obfuscation, and the shroud of secrecy,” he told The Independent. “They’re desperate that the truth should not come out, that the Congolese people should not be heard and the realities on the ground should not emerge into the global consciousness.”
The major tech and EV companies extol commitments to human rights, zero-tolerance for child labor, and clean supply chains in financial disclosures and on ethics pages of their company websites.
Mr Kara described these statements as “utterly inconsistent” with what’s happening on the ground.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Congolese people, tens of thousands of children, digging hundreds of thousands of tons of copper-and-cobalt ore per year. Where is it going if no one up the chain is buying it?” he said. “It’s not going to Mars, they are not digging it for sport. There is an enormous supply-demand imbalance, on the demand side. Every last ounce of copper-cobalt ore being scrounged out of the ground, in these hazardous conditions by artisanal miners, is flowing into the formal supply chain. How on earth can any consumer-facing tech or EV company reasonably say that artisanal contribution is not in their supply chain?”
Many of the major tech, EV and battery companies have joined initiatives tasked with cleaning supply chains and stamping out human rights abuses and child labor. The two leading coalitions are the Global Battery Alliance (GBA) and the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI).
RMI has more than 400 companies and associations as members including Amazon, Apple, Boeing, Disney, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Meta, Samsung and Toyota. Membership is $7,500 per year for companies with annual revenues under $9 billion, and $15,000 for those making above $9bn.
Its flagship program -- the Responsible Minerals Assurance Process (RMAP) -- offers “an independent, third-party audit that determines which smelters and refiners can be verified as having systems in place to responsibly source minerals in line with current global standards”.
The GBA is supported by more than 120 organisations including Tesla, Microsoft, Volkswagen, BMW, Glencore, and Hitachi High-Tech Europe. They are also funded by membership fees on tiers related to how much money a company makes.
GBA is working on a Battery Passport program to “provide transparency in practices and the impact of the battery along the value chain to all relevant stakeholders in the battery value chain”.
Neither intiative operates on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, representatives for RMI and GBA told The Independent, and mine site assessments are not part of their work.
“Our audit program until now has focused on the mineral processing portion of the supply chain, the smelters or refiners. We do not have a presence at mine sites anywhere globally as part of our staff,” Jennifer Peyser, RMI’s Executive Director, told The Independent.
Ms Peyser said that RMI was “aware of the conditions” around artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) of cobalt.
“What we’ve been working on with stakeholders is to build out a set of expectations, so one day those sites can be audited,” she said. “That is the goal. As a collective industry, we want to be able to do assessments at those sites. But at this time, that is not something that’s currently being done.”
Alexandra Cech, Director of Reponsible Sourcing at the Responsible Business Alliance (of which RMI is an initiative), also told The Independent that the complexity of ASM makes it very challenging to assess.
“At this time, the primary entity would be considered the DRC government agency, SAEMAPE [the mining sector regulator]. It can be extremely hard to assess these entities especially if you’re not the legal authority or a law enforcement agency. The scope of our influence is really of the refiners that enter into our program,” Ms Cech said in a phone interview this month.
Between 2020 and 2021, GBA set up a “Cobalt Action Partnership” (CAP) to “immediately and urgently eliminate child and forced labor from the cobalt value chain, contribute to the sustainable development of communities, and respect the human rights of those affected”.
Among CAP’s actions are supporting responsible production and sourcing of Congolese cobalt, formalizing the ASM industry in the DRC, and supporting a fund for the prevention of child labour in mining communities.
Inga Petersen, GBA’s Executive Director, told The Independent that a number of local partners in the DRC helped inform CAP’s framework.
These included United Nations’ agencies, UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation, the non-governmental organisation Pact, and Fair Cobalt Alliance -- co-founded by a number of companies including mining multinational Glencore and Huayou Cobalt, the world’s largest single cobalt refiner -- to “improve the lives of mining communities in the DRC”.
“We convened stakeholders to agree on a set of expectations on the sustainable sourcing of artisanal cobalt,” Ms Petersen said in a phone interview. “When it comes to the validation of individual sites, this is not within our mandate or our capacity. For us, it was about achieving a consensus on how these conditions can be improved, because they are systematic levers for change.”
The DRC’s Ministere des Mines, the government department responsible for mining sector policy, did not respond to an email seeking comment from The Independent.
Mr Kara argued in his discussion with The Independent that “there’s not much happening of any merit to assist the people of the Congo in addressing the human rights and environmental violations taking place every day as a consequence of cobalt mining.”
‘People of good conscience won’t stand for it’
A measure of hope exists with the DRC’s current leader, President Felix Tshishekedi, who has undertaken an anti-corruption campaign to investigate previous contracts made with Chinese mining companies, including the dealings of the country’s former president [and his one-time political ally] Joseph Kabila.
Mr Tshishekedi also seems interested in building a relationship with the United States. Last month, he signed a joint “Memorandum of Understanding” with the Biden administration and Zambia to “strengthen the electric vehicle battery value chain”.
Mr Tshishekedi is up for re-election later in 2022, and, per Mr Kara, Mr Kabila is reportedly poised to launch a political comeback with the support of Chinese backers.
If there is not swift action for the Congolese people, an even greater injustice waits in the wings, he adds.
“Some 20 years from now the people of Congo will be left with dirt and nothing to show for it aside from the utter destruction of their environment, and all the injury, assault and death they’ve endured across that period of time,” Mr Kara told The Independent.
Mr Kara hopes that Cobalt Red will shine a light on the rampant human rights abuses of the Congolese miners, and force companies to take action by “investing in the communities upon whose labor and resources their great fortunes are being built”.
“But for the enormous demand of cobalt from consumer-facing tech and EV companies, this entire subsequent chain of injustice would not be taking place. Demand starts at the top, so that’s where solutions have to start as well,” he said. “If it were colonial times, they could probably ignore, quash it and carry on. But we live in a period in history when the dignity and human rights of poor African people is equal to our own. People of good conscience won’t stand for Africans to be treated in these subhuman, colonial ways.”
Or, as he writes in Cobalt Red: “We would not send the children of Cupertino to scrounge for cobalt in toxic pits, so why is it permissible to send the children of the Congo?”