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“Cobalt Red”: Smartphones & Electric Cars Rely on Toxic Mineral Mined in Congo by Children

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Image Credit: Siddharth Kara

The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s cobalt, an essential component in rechargeable batteries powering laptops, smartphones and electric vehicles. But those who dig up the valuable mineral often work in horrific and dangerous conditions, says Siddharth Kara, an international expert on modern-day slavery and author of Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. In an in-depth interview, he says the major technology companies that rely on this cobalt from DRC to make their products are turning a blind eye to the human toll and falsely claiming their supply chains are free from abuse, including widespread child labor. “The public health catastrophe on top of the human rights violence on top of the environmental destruction is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the modern context,” says Kara. “The fact that it is linked to companies worth trillions and that our lives depend on this enormous violence has to be dealt with.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We end today’s show looking how the world’s increasing reliance on cobalt for mobile phones, electric cars has had a devastating impact on the Congo. Cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s supply is mined in the Congo under horrific conditions.

Siddharth Kara documents the human rights and environmental catastrophe in the Congo in his new book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. In it, he writes, quote, “There are many episodes in the history of the Congo that are bloodier than what is happening in the mining sector today, but none of these episodes ever involved so much suffering for so much profit linked so indispensably to the lives of billions of people around the world.”

Kara continues, “Spend a short time watching the filth-caked children of the Katanga region scrounge at the earth for cobalt, and you would be unable to determine whether they were working for the benefit of Leopold or a tech company.”

That’s Siddharth Kara writing in Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. His previous book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, won the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.

Siddharth Kara, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us from London. This book is absolutely devastating, but, of course, it’s describing that reality on the ground in Congo. Tell us the story of how you came to focus on this, and how cobalt links the devastation of the Congo to the West.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you about this crucial and very urgent matter.

I had been doing research on various forms of slavery and child labor around the world for many, many years, starting in the year 2000. And around 2016, I heard from some colleagues in the field about very appalling conditions in the mining of cobalt in the DR Congo. And I had no idea what cobalt was. I thought it was a color. I didn’t know that it was in rechargeable batteries. So it took me a little time to organize my first trip, establish ground relationships. I got into the Congo the first time in 2018.

And what I saw was just so horrific, so extreme and severe. And the fact that it was at the bottom of supply chains, that reach out like a kraken across the global economy and touch the lives of everyone — everyone listening to us right now cannot function for 24 hours without cobalt. And as you noted in your remarks, roughly three-fourths of the world’s supply comes from Congo. And it’s mined in conditions — you read the bit, the sentence that links to Leopold. It’s mined in conditions that are like the colonial times, where the people of Africa are reduced to brute labor, their lives are not valued, their labor is not valued, their humanity is not valued. And that’s the reality that exists at the bottom of cobalt supply chains.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Siddharth, I mean, the book is just magnificent, and, as Amy said, it’s completely devastating. So, if you could explain to us, you know, for people, myself included, when I read the book, the difference between artisanal mining, and the conditions that exist on artisanal mines, areas where artisanal miners search for cobalt, and industrial mining? And then describe some of the conditions. Who are these miners? How many children are involved? And how big are these mines? You’ve said some of them are as large as European cities, including London.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Yeah. So, let’s spend a moment and just understand what’s happening on the ground in that part of the Congo. And this is the southeastern part, from the towns between Lubumbashi and Kolwezi. And when you get down to that part of the Congo, there are massive industrial mining operations, on the one hand. And now, outside of the Congo, consumer-facing tech and EV companies will have you believe that all of their cobalt supply in their batteries for their gadgets and cars comes only from these industrial mines. “Industrial” means what it sounds like: heavy machinery, excavators digging and gouging at the earth. What’s happened there is not sustainable at all in terms of industrial activity — millions of trees clear-cut, massive destruction and contamination of the environment.

Now, alongside that, and the reality is, inside of these industrial operations, there are hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children, who dig by hand. Now, the quaint term given to them is “artisanal mining.” And that makes you think that they’re walking around baking bread or doing work in pleasing conditions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Artisanal mining means these tens of thousands of children, hundreds of thousands of people, scrounging at the ground with pickaxes, shovels, stretches of rebar or their bare hands to pull cobalt out of the ground and feed it up the chain. Many of these people are digging inside industrial mines. And outside of the Congo, tech and EV companies will have you believe that that does not happen, but the truth on the ground is very different.

They also dig all around the countryside, because cobalt is everywhere. There are more reserves of cobalt in that part of the Congo than the rest of the planet combined. So the local population has been displaced by enormous mining operations. You made note that some of these are as big as cities. Well, these mining concessions — “concessions” means the territory a foreign mining company is allowed to exploit — the biggest one in that part of the Congo is the size of London, where I’m sitting right now. So, imagine a London-sized swath of countryside that’s been completely gouged, destroyed, clear-cut and contaminated in this scramble to get cobalt out of the ground and up the chain. And imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who used to live in that territory, forcibly displaced, now without home, without a way to live, and all they can do is scramble back into that ground, try to dig some cobalt out of the earth, and feed it up the chain for a dollar or two a day.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from a 2017 Sky News special report on child miners in the DRC cobalt mines.

RICHARD: [translated] When I wake up every morning, I feel terrible, knowing I have to come back here again. Everything hurts.

DORSEN: [translated] When I’m working here, I’m suffering. My mother, she’s already dead, and I have to work all day, and my head hurts me.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a clip from a documentary produced by Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year. In a film titled Blood Cobalt: The Congo’s Dangerous and Deadly Green Energy Mines, artisanal miner Mama Natalie explains why she works in the mines accompanied by her two children.

MAMA NATALIE: [translated] I come to the mine to hustle. If I am lucky, I make some money, and I buy food for the kids. But if I don’t, they go to sleep hungry. … We collect dirt. The kids help by packing it up and washing it. They also sort through it, looking for minerals. It’s not a good life for children. We just don’t have any other options.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Siddharth Kara, as we hear these voices of the people who are actually digging for the cobalt, what about the responsibility of the corporations, names we know so well, whether we’re talking about Apple or — well, you name the names. And then talk about what they — how they explain this level of exploitation, certainly not something you could see in the children of California doing.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, by and large, these consumer-facing tech and EV companies look the other way. And these are the big names we’re all familiar with: Apple, Tesla, Google, Microsoft, Samsung. I mean, you can go down the list. They all buy some, most or all of their cobalt from the Congo, because there’s no other cobalt to buy, quite frankly. They’re all aware, to some degree, I’m sure, of the conditions on the ground. And by and large, they simply offer PR statements that their supply chains are audited, that they’re certified, that they protect and preserve the human rights of every participant in their supply chain, that they have zero-tolerance policies on child labor, that mining is done sustainably, so you, as a consumer, you, as a shareholder, don’t worry about it.

But the truth, the truth that the Congolese people have to share, is completely different. They are at the bottom of the supply chain, with no alternative but to eke out this base, scrounging, hazardous, miserable existence for a dollar or two a day, feeding cobalt up the chain to these behemoth tech and EV companies. As your clip mentioned, the mother said there’s no other alternative there. These people have been displaced and pushed to a cliff’s edge. If they want to eat, they have to put their lives at risk to dig cobalt out of the ground. And it’s part of the scramble. You see, there is so much demand, especially being driven by this transition to electric vehicles. There is so much demand for cobalt that mining companies can’t get it out of the ground quickly enough. Well, if you have hundreds of thousands of grindingly poor people there digging it out of the ground, it’s a penny-wage way of boosting production to try and meet demand.

And your listeners and viewers should understand, cobalt is toxic. It’s toxic to touch. It’s toxic to breathe. So I have seen thousands of women with babies strapped to their backs inhaling toxic cobalt dust day in and day out, 10-year-old children caked in toxic filth, exposing themselves to toxic cobalt. And the ore that these children are digging that has cobalt in it often has traces of radioactive uranium. So, the public health catastrophe on top of the human rights violence on top of the environmental destruction is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the modern context. And the fact that it is linked to companies worth trillions and that our lives depend on this enormous violence has to be dealt with.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Siddharth, you point out — I’ll just read out a short quote of yours, because you mentioned what these miners are paid. So, you write, “The most fortunate tunnel diggers in Kasulo earn around $3,000 per year.” The most fortunate. “By way of comparison, the CEOs of the technology and car companies that buy the cobalt mined from Kasulo earn $3,000 in an hour, and they do so without having to put their lives at risk each day that they go to work.” So, if you could explain? I mean, first of all, talk — as you said, $7 or $8 is the maximum a day that people earn. What do these children get, these 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-year-old children, and countless teenagers?

SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes. Well, you see, the riches that are enjoyed at the top of the chain, they’re stacked to the sky on top of the narrow, beleaguered shoulders of the children of the Congo.

So, start with the family unit. Men and teenage boys with some strength, they might be digging tunnels in a neighborhood like Kasulo, that you just mentioned, which is in Kolwezi, ground zero for cobalt mining. They dig shafts down into the ground, up to 100 feet deep, to try to find slightly higher grades of cobalt ore — think of it like purity — so that instead of earning a dollar or two or three, maybe they’ll earn four or five or six. Well, they’re crouched in darkness. They don’t have room to sit up as they work for 18 hours at a time underground. And those tunnels often collapse, burying alive everyone inside.

On the ground, you’ll have younger children, and maybe mothers, digging in pits and trenches that could be a few meters deep. They will gather sacks of dirt and stone and fill them up and take them over to putrid rinsing pools, where young children, little boys and girls, will use a sieve to try to separate dirt and stone from cobalt-bearing ore. They go through this process throughout an entire day to fill one sack, for which the family might get $2 or $3 or $4 from the buyers, the Chinese buyers, who then sell it to formal industrial mining companies.

So, at the bottom end, children could be earning 50 cents to a dollar for rinsing and sieving and sorting. And at the best, on the best day, tunnel-digging males and teenage boys might earn $5 or $6 or $7, but putting their lives at risk for a potentially horrid demise each and every day.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the responsibility of the Congolese government, of China, of the United States?

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, ultimately, what needs to happen is the companies at the top of the chain have to accept responsibility for the conditions at the bottom of their cobalt supply chains. It’s that lack of accountability, the lack of accepting responsibility for the conditions of labor of the Congolese people and the environmental destruction, that leads to a host of other ills.

So, every actor in the supply chain, from Chinese mining companies to the Congolese government, they’re all parts of a chain that starts at the top. And there are bad actors at every level. The Congolese government, of course, has its role to play in not adequately and equitably allocating mining revenues to the population there. There’s corruption and graft, of course, which plagues the country of the Congo.

But China dominates and controls mining production on the ground. And what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and what any Congolese person living in the Katanga region will tell you, is they pay no heed to the human rights of the Congolese people, and they pay no heed to environmental protection. Mining companies, especially the Chinese ones, dump toxic effluents in the earth, the air, the water. I have seen villages with children playing in the dirt, covered in sulfuric acid powder that is wafting over the entire countryside from mineral processing plants at Chinese mining companies. And as I’ve mentioned a few times, millions of trees have been clear-cut. And I never met anyone in the Congo who said they saw anyone planting one tree to replace them. The waterways, lakes and rivers, have also been polluted, so fish stocks are polluted. Animal stocks are polluted. Vegetables are polluted. Everyone there is being slowly poisoned to death by cobalt mining operations. That’s the truth that the stakeholders at the top of the chain don’t want us to know. But that’s the truth the Congolese people are desperate to share.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Siddharth, could you explain — you talked about — how is it that China came to play such a huge role in the cobalt mining industry, owning and financing as many of the mines, 15 out of the 19 major industrial copper-cobalt mining complexes in the main cobalt-producing provinces that you visited? How has China come to play this role? And then talk about the depots, the bosses that you spoke to. It was very difficult to get into the depots. They all have armed guards and so on. What did those — the Chinese bosses of these depots tell you about the conditions there, what they’re doing there? And did they take any responsibility at all for the conditions under which these miners were working?

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, in a way, you have to give China credit. Fifteen-plus years ago, they saw that the future was going to be rechargeable batteries. And that meant cobalt. And they shrewdly determined all the cobalt is in the Congo. And starting in 2009 with the previous administration of President Joseph Kabila, they started signing deals. And the first one they signed in 2009 was a $6 billion loan and infrastructure deal in exchange for access to several copper-cobalt mines in the Congo. And that opened the door, that opened the floodgates, and then it was one state-run Chinese mining company after another signing deals with the Kabila administration. And before the West knew what was happening, China had locked down the bottom of the cobalt supply chain. And from that point forward, they vertically integrated it. They control probably 70 to 80% of mining production on the ground in the Congo. Last year, they supplied about 80% of the world’s supply of refined cobalt and probably half of the world’s supply of rechargeable batteries for phones, laptops and cars.

But how does this artisanal cobalt, the child-mined cobalt, enter into that formal supply chain? Well, there’s an informal ecosystem that exists right next to the formal supply chain. And imagine it like this. You have hundreds of thousands of people digging all around that part of the countryside, filling up sacks of cobalt. And they take it to these depots, or they’re also called buying houses. And most of them are run by Chinese agents. And their job is to buy up artisanal cobalt and sell it straight to industrial mining companies. And so, you can just sit outside. And they advertise with these pink tarps. They’ll say, “Copper-cobalt depot,” “$1 million depot, “[dollar sign] depot.” And so, artisanal miners sell their cobalt to these buying houses. And at the end of the day, you see huge cargo trucks from the industrial mines pull up and buy up all these sacks, hundreds and hundreds of sacks of tons of cobalt being purchased, and they take them right into the industrial mine, where it’s then mixed with the industrial production.

And from that point forward — this is very important for people to understand — from that point forward, there is no way to disaggregate which cobalt was pulled out of the ground by an excavator and which cobalt was pulled out of the ground by hands of a child. And any company that claims otherwise is either recklessly ignorant of the truth on the ground or they’re dealing in falsehood.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking to Siddharth Kara, who is author of Cobalt Red. You end your book quoting the last letter of Patrice Lumumba to his wife — Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1961. The U.S. went after him, specifically the CIA, Belgium. Talk about this quote, when you write, “Patrice Lumumba offered a fleeting chance at a different fate, but the neocolonial machinery of the West chopped him down and replaced him with someone who would keep their riches flowing.” And that was the longtime, decades-long dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, long supported by the United States.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, let’s go back to the moment of independence in 1960 in the DR Congo, and 17 countries in Africa got independence from their colonial powers that year. Congo was coming out of centuries of the slave trade and then Belgian colonialism. Patrice Lumumba was a very bold, popular nationalist leader. He was elected in the country’s first democratic elections to be their first president and prime minister. And he had a bold vision that the Congo’s mineral wealth, its rich resources — and the Congo is blessed with enormous riches and resources — his vision was that those resources should be for the benefit of the Congolese people and not foreign powers.

Well, 11 days after independence, Belgium amputated the part of the Congo that we’re talking about right now, Katanga, where all the mineral resources are, and that was 80% of the country’s economy at independence. So, 11 days. The country had 11 days of freedom before Belgium went in and amputated the most important part of the country.

Well, Lumumba asked the United Nations for help expelling the Belgians. They did not cooperate. So then he turned towards the Soviet Union and asked their help in expelling the Belgians from his country. Well, the thought that the Congo’s mineral riches would flow towards the Soviet Union and not continue flowing to the West sent those neocolonial powers into a tailspin, and they hatched a plan very quickly to dispatch of Lumumba.

The U.S., Belgium, the CIA, they were all involved in capturing Lumumba. They flew him to the Belgian stronghold in Katanga, tortured him, shot him, chopped him to pieces, dissolved his body in acid, ground his bones to dust so no trace could ever be found, except for one tooth that was held as a souvenir by one of the Belgian assassins. And in fact, that tooth was just returned by Belgium to Lumumba’s descendants last year.

So, the lesson was — the lesson was, unless you play ball with the West, we’ll chop you down and replace you with someone who will. And as you noted, that person ended up being Joseph Mobutu for three decades, a corrupt, bloodthirsty despot and kleptocrat who ran the Congo into the ground. And so the Congo really never had a chance. It’s just been one set of corrupt leadership after another. But they had their chance at freedom and maybe a completely different path with Lumumba after independence, but, sadly, the colonial powers had other plans.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Siddharth, if we could go back to the stories, in fact, that you heard while you were in the Congo, what’s, in fact, become of the place? You interview many miners and families of miners in the book. Could you tell us a couple of those stories, the story, for example, of Elodie or Lubo? Just tell us what they told you, who they are.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Yeah. Elodie was a young girl I met on my first trip to the Congo. She was 15 years old, an orphan. She was digging in an area called Lake Malo, which is near a village called Kapata in the Kolwezi area. And she had been orphaned by cobalt mining. Her father, she reported, died in a tunnel collapse inside an industrial mine right next to where she was digging when I met her. And her mother died from some infection or illness, she wasn’t sure, but her mother was someone who rinsed cobalt stones in the very toxic waters at Lake Malo. And Elodie was an orphan, on her own. And there are thousands of children who have been orphaned by cobalt mining. And they scramble and scrounge for cobalt. And in her case, she couldn’t make ends meet. She had to prostitute herself as a teenager to try to get money to survive. When I met her, it was pretty clear to me she was in the later stages of HIV. She had a 2-month-old son strapped to her back. She was wiry, mucus-crusted, very, very ill.

And what I saw in her was the face of what the global economy was doing to the Congo. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the degradation of this child, and children like her, can be transformed by the global economy into shiny phones and cars. But that’s exactly what’s happened. And she was sort of the quintessence of this story, the complete degradation of Congolese children, children thrown to a pack of wolves by a global economy that transformed their degradation, their suffering into the indispensable gadgets and cars that we rely on every day. And that’s an injustice. That’s an utterly caustic, miserable formula that needs to be set right, because we can’t conduct our rechargeable economy and our daily lives by inflicting such violence and suffering on some of the poorest children in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Siddharth Kara, we want to thank you so much for being with us, author of the new book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. His previous book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, won the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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