Feb. 6, 2023 (GIN) – Some might call it a vision of hell.
To others, the cobalt mines, where thousands of miners toil in vast open pits, are “a hellscape of craters and tunnels, patrolled by maniacs with guns.”
“It was a “lunar wasteland,” a “devastated landscape” that “resembled a battlefield after an aerial bombardment.”
Now, after of a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Siddharth Kara, a researcher of human trafficking and modern slavery, has produced a book – “Cobalt Red” – that is by turns, chilling and shocking.
His journeys through the Congo’s jungles and mines are reminiscent of the country’s 19th-century explorers as he treks where few have dared – all to witness the shocking labor and environmental practices accompanied by “vacant statements on zero-tolerance policies and other hollow PR” in pursuit of cobalt.
Kara, with the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, has been investigating modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labor for two decades. He says that although the DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined, there’s no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country.
In “Cobalt Red,” Kara writes that much of the DRC’s cobalt is extracted by “artisanal” miners — freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labor for the equivalent of a few dollars a day.
“People are working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions,” he says. “They use pickaxes, shovels, stretches of rebar to hack and scrounge at the earth in trenches and pits and tunnels to gather cobalt and feed it up the formal supply chain.”
The mining industry has ravaged the landscape of the DRC, he adds. Millions of trees have been cut down, the air around mines is hazy with dust and grit, and the water has been contaminated with toxic effluents from the mining processing.
“Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe,” he says, “and there are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out. Young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust.”
“The reader senses that the author has been left shell-shocked, not from the carnage but from seeing thousands of people mining by hand, hammer and shovel in vast open pits hundreds of feet deep, most of the pits arrayed with hand-dug tunnels,” the WSJ observes.
Kara reports visiting a typical mine where more than three thousand women, children and men shoveled, scraped, and scrounged . . . under a ferocious sun and a haze of dust.”
Why cobalt? asks a reviewer from a local paper. “Because today’s smartphones, laptops, leaf blowers, toys and so much more owe their revolutionary portability to the advent of cobalt-infused lithium batteries.”
Meanwhile, artisanal miners are regularly mistreated, says Papy Nsenga, president of a union of miners in Kolwezi, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “What happened here is unfortunately a tragedy that we see every day. The artisanal miners are regularly mistreated by the management of the mining companies. They are beaten savagely by the mine’s security agents.
“ We don’t have the right to mine in the mining projects that are authorized to other companies, but we don’t have our own sites. For a long time, we’ve asked for artisanal mining zones, but neither the Congolese state nor the province has granted us a space.
“All the mining sites have been leased to foreign mining companies. We have no choice but to invade these mining areas to make a living and feed our families.”
And as the demand for rechargeable batteries grows, especially in the green technology sector (electric cars and wind and solar storage sites) so does the danger for Congolese children. The “clean energy revolution” risks having as deleterious impact on Congolese children as the technology revolution of the late 1990s had in the scramble for coltan.”