PART TWO – COBALT, CHINA AND THE FIGHT TO PROTECT AFRICA
To read the New Yorker article by Nicolas Niarchos which inspired this article series, click here.
As bad as lithium mining is for the environment and those living with its consequences, cobalt mining is far worse. Southern Congo sits on 3.4 million metric tonnes of cobalt, which is roughly half the earth’s known supply, and global demand is high due to its use in lithium ion batteries (cobalt extends battery life). Heterogenite is the mineral which becomes cobalt when refined, and it’s as easy to find as digging in your backyard with a child’s beach shovel. In a country where 85% of the population works informal jobs for pennies a day, you can see where the prospect of living on top of a major cobalt deposit could destroy entire communities.
This is precisely what happened to the city of Kolwezi in 2014 when a man discovered an unusually pure seam of heterogenite in his backyard. Wanting to keep his find a secret, he began to dig inside his rental house and moved the ore at night so as to night arouse anyone’s suspicions. After the landlord confronted him about the damage, he ran off with $10,000.00, a sum that would definitely make him part of the one percent in Congolese society. When word got out about the amount of money he’d made, people started digging in their own backyards, despite the mayor’s protestations that this was dangerous. Eventually, they ran him out of town and continued their frenzied quest for riches. Things got so bad that an artisanal mine shaft collapsed, killing five people, and Amnesty International was called in a year later to try and clean up the mess.
This may seem like a particularly 21st century problem, but in reality, it is nothing new. In 1885, the Belgians under King Leopold II, began exploiting the natural and human resources of Congo. Although the country gained its independence in 1960, the mistreatment continued, first at the hands of the Soviets, and then at the hands of western leaders who backed Mobutu Sese Seko because they believed he was anti-communist. He may very well have been, but he was also an authoritarian and a kleptocrat whose cult of personality broke the economic back of his people. Not surprisingly, mining was a large source of his ill-gotten gains – Gecamines was the state run mining company that held a monopoly and was in his back pocket. By the time Sese Seko was exiled in 1999, Gecamines had completely collapsed.
Open-pit cobalt mines are now owned by Glencore, a Swiss corporation which has an exceedingly bad reputation worldwide for its human rights and environmental abuse (I have written about them here). Under its seemingly “turn a blind eye” philosophy, cobalt mining in the Congo is ripe with abuses that make the phrase “hell on earth” seem all too real. Children are used to mine the mineral because they are small and can fit in tight mine shafts better than a full grown adult; many die in mine collapses, while others are raped out of the superstitious belief that sex with a virgin child can increase your chances of growing rich. Children are starved as punishment for not gathering enough heterogenite. If they live long enough to become adults, many of them are unable to have children due to the side effects of cobalt poisoning, while those who do, often have children with severe disabilities.
In 2015, the city of Kolwezi become the capital of Lualaba province, and the first governor, Richard Muyej Mansez Mans gave exclusive mineral rights in the region to a subsidiary of Zhejiang Huayou, a Chinese mining conglomerate. By 2017, Huayou controlled over 20% of the global cobalt market. Peter Zhou, a Chinese financier who works in the Congolese mining sector has been quoted as saying that in the developing world “there is corruption, there is the lack of the rule of law, which gives you more autonomy to be entrepreneurial.” Of course, he was quick to point out he hasn’t witnessed or participated in any corruption. Pardon me if I don’t exactly believe him. That level of power, coupled with no oversight, has only made things exponentially worse for the Congolese people. They continue to suffer from harrowing abuse, ill health and economic devastation, while the global market for cobalt continues to soar.
When will we stop seeing electric vehicles as our saviors?