Cobalt Red: Modern Day Slavery in Congo That Powers Our Live
Siddharth Kara claims that although while electric cars, laptops, and smartphones are symbols of the modern age, the cobalt that powers their rechargeable batteries is frequently extracted through slave-like labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kara, a fellow at the Kennedy School and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, has spent the past 20 years studying modern-day slavery, human trafficking, and child labor. There is no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the DRC, he claims, despite the country having more cobalt reserves than the rest of the world combined. In his most recent book, Cobalt Red, Kara claims that many of the DRC’s cobalt deposits are extracted by so-called “artisanal” miners, independent contractors who engage in exceedingly risky work for the equivalent of just few dollars a day.
“You have to imagine walking around some of these mining areas and dialing back our clock centuries,” Kara says. “People are working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions. 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.”
According to Kara, the DRC’s landscape has been destroyed by the mining sector.
Millions of trees have been felled, the air is polluted with dust and grit near mines, and toxic effluents from mining operations have contaminated the water. Moreover, he adds , “Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe — 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.”
Almost all lithium ion rechargeable batteries used in today’s world are made from cobalt. Kara asserts that notwithstanding distinctions made by people living outside of the DRC between cobalt mined by artisanal miners and that extracted by the nation’s high-tech industrial mining firms.
“There’s complete cross-contamination between industrial excavator-derived cobalt and cobalt dug by women and children with their bare hands,” he says. “Industrial mines, almost all of them, have artisanal miners working, digging in and around them, feeding cobalt into the formal supply chain.”
Kara recognizes the crucial role cobalt plays in technological advancements and the switch to renewable energy sources. He suggests that rather than completely abandoning cobalt, people could concentrate on improving the supply chain.
“We shouldn’t be transitioning to the use of electric vehicles at the cost of the people and environment of one of the most downtrodden and impoverished corners of the world,” he says. “The bottom of the supply chain, where almost all the world’s cobalt is coming from, is a horror show.”
A mine collapses in Congo, but workers save their colleagues
Many of these caves are dug for cobalt and copper, pulled out in clumps called heterogenite. This video likely shows “artisanal miners”, aka miners not technically employed by a major mining corp, who use rebar and shovels to dig with virtually no safety equipment. These caves can be 60 meters deep, dug out by hand, and frequently collapse. These miners make anywhere from $.80 to $5 a day depending on the ore concentration and are commonly teenage boys.
Once mined, the cobalt (or other minerals) is mixed at “depots” with the same cobalt mined by professional mining corps, and usually shipped to china to be manufactured into rechargeable batteries for iPhones and EVs, among other things.
Watch video below: