In Pursuit of Cobalt
Cobalt is an essential component to every lithium-ion rechargeable battery made today,
In what Siddharth Kara calls an almost Biblical scene is a crater in southeastern Republic of the Congo. Diggers numbering 5,000 or so are packed tightly together. Each is winging a hammer and pick to prise chunks of speckled blue-gold ore from the earth. The prize is cobalt – a strategic metal found in abundance in the central African nation.
Last year, according to market specialist Darton Commodities, the DRC provided 72% of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in electric cars and mobile phones.
According to some reports, as many as 20,000 work the mines in shifts of 5,000 at a time. The world papers over shocking labor and environmental practices with, “vacant statements on zero-tolerance policies and other hollow PR” in pursuit of cobalt. Mark Mills in the WSJ reviews “Colbalt Red,” whose author, a senior fellow at Harvard’s School of Public Health, labels himself an activist.
Have Cobalt, Will Travel
What is Cobalt? What does it do? How is it used?
Today’s smartphones, laptops, leaf blowers, toys, and so much more owe their revolutionary portability to the advent of cobalt-infused lithium batteries, explains Siddharth Kara.
Up until the late 1990s, the uses for cobalt—in magnets, dyes, inks, chemical catalysts and little else—required some 20 kilotons of the mineral a year, a relatively modest figure by mining standards and one that had remained little changed over the previous three decades. Then the first lithium decade vaulted annual cobalt demand to about 60 kilotons.
Three-fourths of Cobalt comes from the Congo. That’s a market share more than double OPEC’s claim on oil, explains the author.
Now comes the electric vehicle’s half-ton battery, each one using thousands of smartphones’ worth of minerals. Even at only 10% of global auto sales, electric vehicles have already pushed annual cobalt demand to 140 kilotons; it is expected to exceed 200 kilotons by 2026 as new battery factories come online and will explode from there when proposed EV mandates are supposed to kick in, many within the coming decade.
The Moral Implications
In an unflinching investigation, Mr. Kara highlights the human rights abuses behind the Congo’s cobalt mining operation. Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo takes an immense toll on the people of the Congo.
Maniacs with Guns
Siddharth Kara traveled deep into cobalt territory to document the testimonies of the people living, working, and dying for cobalt. To uncover the truth about brutal mining practices, Kara investigated militia-controlled mining areas, traced the supply chain of child-mined cobalt from toxic pit to consumer-facing tech giants, and gathered shocking testimonies of people who endure immense suffering and even die mining cobalt. With armed guards (“maniacs with guns”) overseeing the miners, Mr. Kara opted not to snap any photos.
Mr. Kara spares no one from responsibility, from the Chinese firms that he sees everywhere in the country to the Congo’s national and local governments. He calls out Western tech and car companies, as well as nongovernmental organizations, for their eager commitments to “international human rights norms” and “zero-tolerance policies on child labor.”
These commitments, the author argues, are at best unverified, perhaps even unverifiable. At one mining site that employed more than 10,000 artisanal miners, the author noticed a sign at the entrance that would have been laughable if it weren’t so tragic: “Our values—Transparent, dynamic, respectful, accountable, socially responsible.”
Artisanal Mining Zones?
“With up to 40 trucks leaving the site to deliver ore to other companies in the region every day, it is clear that these activities are organized and are not the work of small-scale artisanal miners.” A spokesman added that DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined. There, however, is no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country.
A Lunar Landscape
“Artisanal mining” is a euphemism, whose aim is to disguise the exploitation of Congolese laborers that makes battery-powered lives possible.
In Cobalt Red, Kara highlights how much of the DRC cobalt is being extracted by so-called “artisanal” miners” — freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labor for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day. As Mr. Mills writes in his review:
Mr. Kara captures the impact of artisanal mining through the powerful stories of the miners—men, women and children—that he has gleaned through interviews. It’s often hard to read his descriptions of the miners’ daily lives, the risks, accidents, promises unfulfilled and, too often, heart-wrenching tales of maimed or dead children.
Mr. Mills also notes that demand for cobalt is soaring.
The lessons in “Cobalt Red” extend to dozens of other minerals. The path to energy-transition goals runs through all kinds of mines located around the globe, from Russia’s Arctic to Brazil’s Amazon forests, from Mozambique to Chile and beyond. The global production of copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and many more minerals will need to rise more than 1,000% in the next few years to supply all the electric vehicles, windmills and solar modules imagined or mandated. The author (Kara) writes that some 45 million people are directly involved in artisanal mining globally. We await adventurers as brave as Mr. Kara to shine a light on those supply-chain realities too.
Mr. Kara closes “Cobalt Red” with this notice: “exploitation of the poorest people of the Congo” is a “moral reversion.”
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