For Your Phone and EV, a Cobalt Supply Chain to a Hell on Earth
As countries around the world look to pivot quickly to clean energy, demand for the lithium-ion batteries used to charge our smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles is booming. But as author and contemporary-slavery expert Siddharth Kara says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, those rechargeable batteries require cobalt to function, and 75 percent of the world’s supply of that mineral is mined from the rich earth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
To report his latest book, Cobalt Red, Kara traveled into militia-controlled mining areas of that troubled nation, where five-year-old children wielding crude shovels and scraps of rebar represent the bottom of a global supply chain that ends on the factory floors of some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. Kara provides firsthand testimony from dozens of Congolese caught up in the race to harvest cobalt — a frenzy that has resulted not just in illness and untold deaths, but in the wholesale contamination of the region’s water, soil, and air.
A fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the author of three previous books on modern-day slavery and sex trafficking, Kara documents how the Congolese government, Chinese tech companies, and every one of us have become unwitting participants in what can only be characterized as a humanitarian crime. “Environmental destruction, human destruction, labor exploitation, public-health catastrophe,” he says. “The list of violence goes on and on.”
Yale Environment 360: How did you come to focus on this topic?
Siddharth Kara: I started hearing from colleagues in the field around 2016 that there were issues with how cobalt was being mined in the Congo. I had no idea at that time about this metal and how it related to rechargeable batteries. I made a first trip in 2018, and I was expecting to see some pretty miserable conditions, but the scale of it, the severity of what was happening, the enormity of the violence against the people and environment there — it really shocked me. So I redirected all my efforts toward trying to research what was happening and raise awareness.
e360: You talk about “industrial” mines and “artisanal” mines. What does that latter word mean?
Kara: The term is just nonsensical in its inaccuracy. It makes you think of craftsmen or people baking bread or something. In fact, it’s grindingly poor people scraping and scrounging in pits and trenches with pickaxes, shovels, their bare hands, strips of rebar, in tattered rags as they gather up cobalt-bearing ore, stones, and pebbles into sacks. And that’s called artisanal mining, meaning people with their hands as opposed to heavy equipment.
e360: What do these mines look like?
Kara: The first place I went was an artisanal mining area near the Zambian border. It was this vast lunar landscape where everything had been chewed up. I remember looking at this destroyed landscape and these thousands of bodies laboring over it and thinking it was like some rung of hell. Literally, it was level four as you go down Dante’s Inferno. I thought that was as bad as it was going to get, but it only became darker and bleaker and more destructive the further into the mining provinces I went.
e360: These workers are basically freelance, but what they gather makes its way into the global supply chain?
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people involved in this, including tens of thousands of children as young as five.”
Kara: A shadow economy exists underneath the formal economy. Everything that artisanal miners dig out of the ground is sold through intermediaries who then sell it to formal mining companies. There’s this laundering mechanism of traders and buying houses and depots that pay a few dollars a sack to the artisanal miners and then turn right back around and sell those sacks straight to industrial mining companies or processing facilities. Then it’s in the formal supply chain, and there’s no disaggregating it from what was dug through industrial means because it’s all dumped together to be processed.
One of the great fictions promulgated outside of the Congo is there are these immutable lines between industrial and artisanal production, and when you get on the ground you realize that it’s an utter fiction, that there’s no line, there’s no wall. It just flows almost seamlessly into the formal supply chain.
e360: A lot of these workers are children. How and why do they get involved?
Kara: We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people involved in this artisanal economy, including tens of thousands of children as young as five and six years old. The youngest ones will do surface digging, just scraping at the surface to gather what they can, and young boys and, more so, girls will do rinsing and sieving. When there’s a sack of dirt and stone that’s been gathered, you have to separate the dirt and the valueless stones from the cobalt-bearing stones, so they sieve what they’ve gathered in putrid toxic pools of sludgy water or in nearby little ponds and lakes. Then as children get older, especially teenage boys, they’ll be involved in tunnel digging, which requires more strength. There are tens of thousands of children who are working usually alongside their parents, but many are orphans as well.
e360: And cobalt itself is toxic to touch and breathe?
Kara: Very toxic. So all these people are being exposed to toxic cobalt dust and particulates and ore every day. Birth defects are on the rise, cancers, thyroid disease, neurological ailments, respiratory ailments, skin rashes and dermatitis. But no one at the top of the chain is talking about good health practices and protective gear. You can live in that part of the Congo and have nothing to do with cobalt mining, but you’re still being poisoned every day.
And the ore sometimes has traces of radioactive uranium in it, which has very bleak consequences to the human body. When the industrial mines process the ore, they use sulfuric acid. They’re supposed to contain the effluence, the gas clouds, as they would in their own home countries, these foreign mining companies, but no one cares about the people of the Congo or the environment of the Congo. It all just wafts over the mining provinces. Every body of water, the air, the dirt, it’s all contaminated.
e360: What sorts of accidents did you witness?
Kara: At one industrial mine, children, barefoot or in flip flops, had to make their way up this 30-, 40-meter wall roughly at a 45-degree angle. It was just stone and gravel shifting beneath their feet. They would fill sacks that were 20, 30, 40 kilograms, depending on how big and strong they were, and then come back down carrying them. Some would lose their footing and tumble all the way to the ground. They end up with shattered legs and spines.
“I’ve interviewed women who lost their husbands, who lost their sons … fathers who worked alongside their sons and lost children.”
The worst is the tunnels that collapse. No one knows how many tunnels have been dug by artisanal miners. I think there are at least 15,000 to 20,000 of them across the mining provinces. They’re typically 30, 40, 50 meters deep, because there’s higher grade ore a little deeper down. They hand-dig these tunnels, and they don’t have supports or ventilation shafts or rock bolts, and the tunnels collapse all the time, and everyone who’s underneath is buried alive. I’ve interviewed women who lost their husbands, who lost their sons to these tunnel collapses; fathers who worked alongside their sons and lost children.
e360: You write about one girl, I think she was 15, with an infant in whom you recognized late-stage HIV. How prevalent is HIV in the region?
Kara: No one’s tracking. It’s not an area where there is much by way of public health clinics. I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess at what the prevalence is, but in this case, the girl I called Elodie, who was orphaned, had to prostitute herself as a child — that term doesn’t even apply to a child — to survive. Sexual violence against women and girls is very prevalent in the mines.
e360: China now owns most of the industrial cobalt mines in the Congo. How did that happen?
Kara: There was one U.S. mining company in the Congo, and it had the largest copper-cobalt concession. They sold it in 2016 to a Chinese company. That was the end of the U.S. presence. There’s still one European mining company there, but the rest are Chinese. The doors really opened in 2009, when then–President Joseph Kabila signed an agreement with the Chinese government to get several billion dollars in aid and infrastructure projects and loans in exchange for access to a couple of copper-cobalt mines. After that, it was just a scramble.
Before anyone knew it, China had locked down the bottom of the cobalt supply chain, because they saw that the future was going into rechargeable batteries, phones, gadgets, and, increasingly, electric vehicles. They’ve been vertically integrating it ever since. They control most of the copper-cobalt mining production in the Congo. They moved with acumen, shrewdness, and speed to lock this supply chain down. And now Western governments are scrambling because they were left flat-footed.
e360: And it’s a race against time, right? Because we’ve got to move on clean energy immediately, but how do you quickly clean up the supply chain of a mineral so vital to it?
Kara: We have understandably and rightfully pursued climate-sustainability goals with all due intensity and urgency, but we’ve charged forward with so much force that no one turned around to see, are we trampling on anybody along the way? And that’s what has to happen now, because we cannot pursue a green future by destroying the environment in the Congo. We cannot save our environment by destroying theirs, nor can we enable our rechargeable lives by sacrificing and forfeiting the lives of African people.
e360: Where would you divide the blame between the mining companies and the Congolese government?
Kara: The Congolese government bears some responsibility for inadequately allocating resources generated through the sale of mineral concessions and royalties and taxes paid on the extractive industry. But it’s also a country that has been so racked by war, is so unstable, and has struggled since day one of independence, in no small part because of foreign interference. I don’t think Congo ever had a chance to get two feet planted on the ground from the moment of independence.
“Once a horror is revealed, people of conscience organize and set the injustice right, and that’s what needs to happen today.”
So while poor governance is part of the reason why the people of Congo continue to suffer, the majority of the blame still has to be levied against foreign powers and foreign stakeholders that continue to plunder that place, knowing that if they just throw enough bribe money at whomever is in power, they’ll look the other way, and, in this case, let those mining companies plunder the place mercilessly.
e360: What can an American consumer to improve this situation?
Kara: Number one, be aware. That’s the point of my book, Cobalt Red, to bring this truth out into the world. Once a horror is revealed, then people of conscience organize and set the injustice right, and that’s what needs to happen today. So the first thing is to spread awareness. There’s more and more information online just to be aware of what’s happening.
And then we’ll come to the phase, which I think is not far off, of organizing for change. As consumers, we all have individual choices to make. We’ve been marketed this compulsion that we have to upgrade our gadgets every year, which puts more demand-side pressure on cobalt and other rechargeable battery metals. I think most people can do just fine with their phone for several years if they now know that the consequence is dead children in the Congo and destruction of the people and the environment there. I think if you’re in the market for an electric vehicle or you already own one, it’s important to clamor and agitate as a consumer and maybe even a shareholder to say, “This supply chain has to be set right.”