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Cobalt has been exploited for decades due to its many important uses especially in today's technology-filled world. This mineral is used in the aerospace industry, vehicles, medicine, and many electronic components, such as rechargeable phone batteries and other electronic devices.
Located in central-western sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses an abundance of natural resources, one of them being cobalt. It is estimated that between 70 and 80% of the world's supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, making it the country with the largest reserve of the mineral. Unfortunately, the high levels of cobalt found in the country make them susceptible to becoming victims of Western imperialism and exploitation.
Despite the technological advancements of the mining industry, in the DRC, cobalt is mined by hand, a practice known as "artisanal mining." Workers in artisanal mining, unlike those in industrial mining who utilize machinery, only have their bare hands along with tools such as pickaxes, shovels, rebar, and shabby rags to extract minerals.
The formal economy created through artisanal mining also contains a "shadow economy": after the diggers extract the mineral, cobalt is sold to mining companies through intermediaries who are responsible for refining the mineral before it is bought by Western tech and automobile companies.
Thousands of Congolese, including children, constitute the bottom of this supply chain. Although legally in the DRC, only children aged 15 and older are allowed to engage in "light work", reports of children as young as five working in the mining industry have been accounted for in recent years. The lack of financial resources and education opportunities in the DRC have led toddlers to find themselves mining cobalt in horrendous working conditions. In addition, with the help of militias, children have been abducted and brought to work in mines hundreds of miles away from their homes and families.
The conditions in these mines are utterly inhumane. In the mines, Congolese workers are subjected to unsafe labour, with pay as low as 10 US dollars per day. Whenever miners enter the shafts to access underground tunnels, there is always the risk that the tunnel could collapse on them, burying them alive, which has happened to numerous workers. Cobalt mines also expose children and women to greater risk. Not only are the working conditions atrocious, but women and children are disproportionately affected by the spread of prostitution, rape, and sexually transmitted diseases; this is essentially a case of modern slavery.
Many have lost their lives harvesting cobalt, and the exploitation of the mineral has also contaminated the country's water, soil, and air. Cobalt is highly toxic, harmful enough only by touching the mineral or breathing its dust. Amongst other, the toxic effects of cobalt have gone beyond affecting the workers; people living near the mines have an increased chance of giving birth to children with birth defects, developing cancer or respiratory illnesses. The expansion of the mining industry in the DRC has also led to many communities being displaced; forced to abandon their homes and farmlands. As of October 2023, it is estimated that 400 households have been forcefully evicted as a direct result of cobalt mining.
Today, with the exception of one, all mining companies in the DRC are owned by Chinese. In 2009, Joseph Kabila, former president of the country, signed an agreement with China, allowing the country access to multiple cobalt mines in exchange for billions of dollars in financial aid, loans, and infrastructure development projects.
When it comes to identifying the responsible party for the humanitarian crimes occurring in these mines, there is no direct answer. Some might blame Kabila for agreeing to the foreign exploitation of the country's citizens, preventing the DRC from economically benefiting from the fruit of its own labour. Some might point the finger at China for taking advantage of the country's already vulnerable state. Upon signing these agreements, it is clear that China's main intention was not to help the country, but rather, to gain control of the mining industry and to gain economically as much as possible. As the owner of all of these mining companies, China should be responsible for providing workers with proper, safe working conditions, health regulations, and reasonable wages.
As consumers of electronic devices, we are unwitting participants in the modern enslavement of these Congolese men, women, and children. But what can we do as consumers to help? Opting for tech companies, like Apple, that are trying to monitor the amount of cobalt they use and they’re sourcing is already a great start. Another thing we can do as consumers is to be more sustainable and take better care of our electronic devices; you do not need to buy the newest iPhone everytime it comes out. And when getting a new device, instead of keeping the old one in a box that collects dust in your closet, you can bring your device to recycling stations where the cobalt that is already in them can be recycled back into the supply chain.