The Democratic Republic of Congo is currently facing a humanitarian crisis as miners are forced to work under exploitative conditions which amounts to modern-day slavery. The mining industry, because of its high demand, is host to various human rights violations including child labour.
On 20 December 2023, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will head to the polls for a general election. These elections have caused worries that the current insecurity in the region will lead to increased violence for citizens. In response to the violence, on 08 November 2023, a video of a man who set himself on fire holding a ‘Stop the Genocide in Congo’ sign went viral on X (formerly Twitter).
Just as Nigeria has oil and South Africa has diamonds, the DRC has cobalt. African countries with extensive reserves of precious raw materials often find themselves prey to irresponsible leadership and the greed of Western powers. The DRC, with the largest reserve of cobalt in the world, is no exception. As of October 2023, 6.9 million Congolese people have been displaced due to violence and rebel attacks. Some of that displacement (about 400 households in October 2023) has been directly linked to forced evictions driven by cobalt mining. Mining in the DRC has particularly gained attention, albeit insufficient, due to its association with grave human rights abuses and exploitation along with the fierce international competition that leeches off it.
COBALT AND THE DRC
Cobalt is a hard, lustrous, silver-grey metal that is often extracted as a by-product of nickel and copper mining. It has a variety of industrial applications, but it is perhaps most well-known as a critical component in the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices. In other words, if you can send messages, browse the internet, and ride an electric car or plane, cobalt has been used as a production component. While cobalt is an essential element, exposure to high levels of the metal can be toxic. Occupational exposure, particularly in mining and processing operations, is a concern.
Cobalt’s importance in defence became clear in the First World War (1914-1918), which only grew in the Second World War (1939-1945) as the US’s importation of cobalt from the DRC grew twelvefold from 1938 to 1943 to support the production of jet engines. To keep up with the high demands, cobalt mine production in the DRC experiences a growth rate of 20 per cent yearly. The multi-purpose use of cobalt has also made it a source of power in global politics, which only intensifies its demand.
The DRC, despite being a major source and exporter of some of the world’s most valuable minerals (copper, gold, coltan, cobalt and diamonds), as well as having the second-largest forest in the world after the Amazon, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. 5.7 million people in the country are also displaced and one in four Congolese people cannot meet their basic food needs. This disproportionate reality signals a major humanitarian crisis resulting from exploitation and injustices such as child labour, unsafe working environments, and corruption.
COBALT AND SLAVERY
While history books remember the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a heinous injustice, we are currently faced with a plague of modern slavery, which according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation, amounts to 49.6 million people as of 2021.
The DRC produces more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply of cobalt which is mined in the country’s copper belt. Of the 255,000 Congolese citizens mining cobalt, at least 40,000 of them are children. Much of the work is informal small-scale mining where labourers primarily use their hands and earn less than $2 per day.
According to American non-governmental organisation, World Vision, mined minerals are often hazardous and exposure to some can have profound health effects. There is also a constant risk of falling into open mine shafts, being trapped, or injured by collapsing tunnels, or drowning while mining underwater. In a survey, World Vision also found that 19 per cent of miners have witnessed a child die at a mining site, 67 per cent reported frequent or persistent coughing, and several girls had genital infections after working waist-deep in acidic water. In addition, up to 2,000 people die from cobalt mining accidents in the DRC every year. Miners also face sexual assault and forced evictions.
Those in the mines face the most salient human rights abuses and exploitations, but risks in this industry are spread across various groups. Truck drivers who move minerals from Kolwezi in the DRC to Zambia and then to coastal ports for transportation to other countries such as China, a major player in the DRC cobalt industry, went on strike in November 2023 to demand an extra risk allowance.
Unfortunately, solutions to this problem are not as easy as they may appear. Some tech companies such as Apple have decided to stop purchasing cobalt from small-scale mining companies to avoid any kind of contribution to exploitation and slavery. However, this does not solve the systemic problems such as poverty that drives families to depend on such exploitative mining jobs for income. Instead, the situation underscores the importance of formalizing the cobalt mining industry to encourage regulated working environments, provide proper equipment and safety procedures and eradicate child labour.
COBALT AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Global demand for cobalt will also have adverse environmental effects on the DRC, especially if precautions are not taken to ensure sustainability. The extraction of mineral resources includes cutting down trees and the contamination of water bodies. Fish are also contaminated with high levels of cobalt which easily spreads to humans through consumption. Of course, those most vulnerable to this exposure are those who work and live close to lakes and rivers where this waste is dumped.
Moreover, quick extraction of cobalt contributes to global warming, as mining operations generate incredibly high carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions and substantial electricity consumption.
COBALT AND GLOBAL INTERVENTION
The global community is not ignorant of the modern slavery happening in the DRC. Companies such as Apple, BMW, Google, Samsung, Volkswagen, and Tesla who rely heavily on cobalt for their production claim to contribute to various initiatives to improve conditions in cobalt mining.
One such initiative is Cobalt for Development, which contributes to training for mine operators and miners to ensure a safer work environment. Unfortunately, such initiatives still face persistent setbacks in artisanal cobalt which is produced by small-scale miners. Another similar initiative is the Fair Cobalt Alliance. Conditions also do not show improvement in the lives of those working in the mines, which evidence how little effort, if any, these tech companies put into ensuring their safety.
Country governments also have their share of responsibility. The Congolese government has been criticised for allowing such practices because of greed, corruption, and a lack of empathy reminiscent of African leaders. Chinese corporations and mining companies are also aware of these hazardous conditions but contribute no help to alleviate the matter. On the contrary, they buy from these miners at criminally low cost and even contribute to their exploitative working conditions.
COBALT AND GENOCIDE
Researchers from Northwestern University have linked cobalt mining with increases in violence and insecurity in the DRC. Neighbouring African countries such as Rwanda have also been accused of funding rebel groups such as M23 to invade the DRC for cobalt extraction. (Rwanda maintains a close relationship with the West, especially the UK, who are eager to have access to Congo’s cobalt.)
Beyond cobalt, since 1996, wider conflict in the eastern DRC has led to approximately six million deaths. According to Human Rights Watch, the armed M23 group is involved in committing executions and civilian recruitments in the DRC and has displaced almost 200,000 civilians. They have also been accused of mass killings and rape. Although the region recently saw calm, more clashes have been reported as of November 2023 following a call by the DRC president, Felix Tshisekedi, for a speedy withdrawal of the UN mission in the country. Tshisekedi’s time in office has been riddled with these issues of exploitation and corruption. In May 2023 the World Bank suspended funding for humanitarian and development projects in the DRC worth more than $1 billion after the Congolese government dissolved the project fund without warning. This demonstrates how the problems of the DRC are also internally charged.
Externally, a United Nations report found that Rwandan forces are fighting alongside M23 to invade the DRC. The hostilities reportedly boil down to Rwanda’s desire to benefit from the lucrative Congo mines. The Congolese finance minister has also said that the country has lost almost $1 billion in a year to Rwanda’s cobalt smuggling. Rwanda denies these allegations, but tensions have increased between both countries as in January 2023, the Rwandan army shot at a Congolese fighter jet that it says violated its airspace. But Rwanda is not alone in this struggle for Congolese resources. Neighbours, Uganda and Burundi, have also been at the centre of various conflicts in the DRC.
While cobalt was initially seen as a miracle metal aimed at promoting clean energy, it has become one of the major vessels for environmental degradation and human exploitation. According to a 2023 UNICEF report, the DRC is close to reaching record levels of verified grave violations against children for a third consecutive year. This is a direct consequence of the global quest for power through cobalt which is now deeply caught up in a familiar cycle of environmental degradation, exploitation, and greed⎈
***Update: An earlier version of this essay stated that the death of six million people in Congo was directly linked to the fight for cobalt. However, this has been updated to reflect that the scramble for cobalt is one of several factors responsible for the humanitarian crises in the DRC.
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