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Open letter to anyone who uses a smartphone, drives an electric car, or flies on a plane

by Siddharth Kara | Harvard Kennedy School
Tuesday, 18 September 2018 13:47 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Artisanal miners work at a cobalt mine-pit in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 25, 2015. PREUTERS/Kenny Katombe

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Make no mistake - the supply chain of cobalt from the Congo is smeared in blood and misery

I recently returned from a research trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where tens of thousands of children toil in abject squalor, endure pitiful penny wages, grave injury, and even death in order to mine cobalt. 

Once processed, this cobalt is used in the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power our electronic devices, allow us to snap photos and videos that capture our lives, and connect us to social media. 

It also powers our electric vehicles and is used to build the jet engines that carry us around the world. 

Companies such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Tesla, Boeing, and dozens more that buy cobalt sourced from the DRC are aware of the appalling conditions in which cobalt can be mined, yet no one appears willing to address the situation. 

Make no mistake - the supply chain of cobalt from the Congo is smeared in blood and misery. 

In order to assess this misery, I documented thirty-one mining sites in and around the cities of Lubumbashi, Kipushi, Likasi, Kambove, and Kolwezi, at villages in between these cities, and in remote mountains and forests near the Zambian border.

Part of the mine near Kolwezi. Siddharth Kara.

Here are the facts:

FIRST – The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the source of more than 60% of the supply of cobalt used around the world, and at least 20% of this output derives from mining by peasants, called creseurs.  These creseurs dig, wash, and sort cobalt-containing heterogenite stones at so-called artisinal mining sites located across the “copper belt” of the southeastern provinces of the DRC.   The remaining cobalt from the Congo is mined at industrial sites largely operated by foreign companies.

SECOND – At least 35,000 children toil in the southeastern provinces in cobalt mining.  At two mining sites I visited – one in Kipushi and another in Kambove - a total of 4,900 adults and 1,100 children slog in rancid and dehumanizing conditions.  The children, as young as six, are caked in filth as they hack, sort, shovel, and scrounge for cobalt, earning between $0.50 and $0.80 per day of grueling labor.  They endure lacerations and broken bones, and they suffer permanent damage to their health by handling cobalt with their bare hands and by breathing toxic mineral dust all day.  None of these children attend school.  Teenage mothers toil under the blazing sun with delirious infants strapped to their backs, breaking only for a moment to breastfeed their doomed babies.  Young children and orphans can also be found in heavy numbers at sites near lakes and rivers.  Near Lake Malo and Lake Golf, more than 5,100 adults and 1,200 children dig for cobalt across the contaminated landscape, which they wash in the lakes to sort out the precious stones.  It takes a full day to fill one sack, for which they receive a scant $0.65 to $0.70.

Boys and men at a cobalt mine in Kipushi digging for cobalt. Siddharth Kara.

THIRD – More than 220,000 adults toil in similarly harsh and harmful conditions.  In the Kasulo neighborhood of Kolwezi, 14,000 males as young as fourteen engage in the most perilous activity I encountered.  Even though this neighborhood has been walled off by one of the largest suppliers of cobalt in the DRC to prevent people from documenting the dangerous conditions, I observed how young men dig tunnels along heterogenite veins as deep as thirty meters underground.  They descend into darkness, crawling along narrow tunnels without room to stand, spending more than twenty-four hours at a time hacking at the walls for cobalt.  Every moment is suffused with dread because tunnels in Kasulo collapse regularly, crushing those inside.  A nearby village called Biwaya has also been walled off by the same cobalt supplier, but this area is guarded more militantly.  No one is allowed in or out, and it is well known locally that most of the 60,000 inhabitants of the village – women, men, and children – are compelled to dig for cobalt.  The same is true at scores of artisinal mining sites in remote mountains and forests close to the Zambian border.  At Kimpese, more than 11,000 creseurs, including 2,000 children, mine cobalt and gold in deplorable conditions under military guard.  By all accounts, many of these people are slaves.

FOURTH – The cobalt mined by creseurs in the southeastern provinces invariably enters global supply chains.  The creseurs are forced to sell their cobalt to traders (negotiants) at whatever pathetic prices they are offered.  The negotiants then sell the cobalt to hundreds of “buying houses” (maisons d’achat) across the region.  Crucially, none of the buying houses I documented enquired as to whether children were involved in the excavation of the cobalt they purchased, let alone the other oppressive conditions under which the creseurs toil.  The buying houses sell the cobalt to refiners in the DRC that process the stone into crude cobalt hydroxide.  Here again, cobalt from numerous sources can be mixed.  The refined cobalt is then loaded onto trucks and driven across the Zambian border for export to China from ports in Dar es Salaam and Durban.  In China, cobalt from a plethora of sources is mixed and refined further.  Finally, the fully processed cobalt is sold to component manufacturers and consumer electronic companies.  Since tainted cobalt is invariably mixed with cobalt from industrial mines, there is no way any company can assure us that the products we purchase do not contain tainted cobalt. 

Part of the neighborhood at Kasulo. Each pink tent is over a tunnel the creseurs have dug. There are over a thousand in the neighborhood. Siddharth Kara.

The time for cynical inaction has ended.

I have seen women and children suffering, anguishing, and dying for our cobalt. 

I have seen immeasurable human torment, transformed by a system of refined cruelty into the flashy new products sold to us every day, at profits that mock decency.  I have heard a thousand cries of misery and injustice, that ought to be the ringtones on the smartphones we buy. 

Companies that buy cobalt from the DRC cannot jettison their responsibility for the vicious and unjust treatment of their Congolese employees simply because they are separated from them by a few thousand miles, and a few thin layers in their supply chains.

From stone to phone, they must be accountable.

I ask that you please join me in taking the following two actions:

First, refuse to purchase any electronic products until companies that buy cobalt from the DRC create an independent third-party system to ensure their supply chains are clear of oppression, exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labor.

Second, demand that the CEOs of the companies who buy cobalt from the DRC donate a modest 1% of their net worth and allocate 1% of their company’s annual free cash flow towards the education, health, security, decent pay, and dignified treatment of their employees in DRC. Surely they are worth one penny on every dollar earned off their misery. 

The torment I observed in the Congo has shattered my heart. I share it with you in the hopes that together, we can bring an end to this immense suffering.

Siddharth Kara is an author, researcher, and activist against modern slavery.  He is an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.