The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) has more cobalt than the rest of the world combined. A resource that powers the $484.8 billion smartphone industry, the electric vehicle sector – which is set to reach $858 billion by 2027, and the global laptop market which is now worth over $158.50 billion. The mineral is in every single lithium, rechargeable battery manufactured in the world today.
Almost three-fourths of the global supply of Cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By far superseding the rest of the world, with only 3% being mined in neighboring Zambia and smaller amounts in other nations.
In 2022, the Norwegian Refugee Council declared the situation in DR Congo to be the world’s most neglected refugee crisis – for the second year running.
The mining provinces in the country have become a hotbed for armed militia with the United Nations reporting no less than 122 rebel groups in the region, leading to millions of Congolese people being both displaced and killed.
A decade of fighting in the country – passed the turn of the century – concluded with an estimated death toll of at least six million. Many being children. Making it – seemingly quietly – the deadliest conflict since World War 2. The question becomes did it ever really stop?
To diminish the life-threatening situation in the Congo, and Cobalt’s importance to world enterprise, political commentators and journalists have blindly brought up that it is not the sole jurisdiction for production, without proper analysis of the overwhelming facts that it is by far the primary worldwide source.
Numerous sporting, entertainment, and media figures have brought awareness to the situation in the Congo, most recently of which being Kyrie Irving.
“How am I free,” said Irving, the Dallas Mavericks superstar, “if I know kids are still working in cobalt mines in the Congo, making Teslas?”
Actor, producer, and director Ben Affleck has been running his Eastern Congo Initiative for over a decade, providing advocacy and grant-making initiatives to the region. Affleck has repeatedly testified before both the U.S. House and Senate, and has advocated for DR Congo before the United Nations, pushing to increase international diplomacy, support, and an understanding of the situation there.
Author and journalist Siddharth Kara was interviewed by Joe Rogan on his world-leading podcast about what’s happening in the region and the dramatic toll it’s having on human life.
From being on the ground in the DR Congo, Kara was adamant that there was no such thing as “clean cobalt” and that all major industrial cobalt mines that he visited (for which he said he had visited almost all of them) relied on child labor or slavery.
In the aftermath of watching the podcast, British rapper Zuby recommended to his social network following to watch the interview.
“This latest Joe Rogan Experience podcast is heavy,” he wrote. “If you have a smartphone or electric vehicle (that’s 100% of you) then I strongly recommend listening to it.”
I sat down with Siddharth Kara, the Harvard visiting professor, and author of Cobalt Red: How The Blood of The Congo Powers Our Lives, on the situation and why the entertainment industry must continue to speak out to garner global attention.
Wilson: What is going on in the Congo, why are people being killed, and what is the death toll of civilians that is due to the harvesting of Cobalt?
Kara: Cobalt mining in the DR Congo is a human rights and environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people, including tens of thousands of children, are digging cobalt out of ground in extremely hazardous conditions for barely a dollar or two per day. They suffer shattered bones, toxic contamination, and are buried alive in tunnel collapses. In addition, the environment has been heavily polluted by mining companies. Millions of trees have been clear cut and toxic effluents are dumped into the air, earth, and water.
The Congo is responsible for roughly three-fourths of global cobalt production, so it is not a stretch to say that our entire rechargeable economy is built on the devastation of the mining provinces of the DR Congo. No one will ever know how many women, men, and children have been killed by cobalt mining operations in the Congo, but the tally is likely to be thousands of lives per year.
Wilson: In your opinion, are companies who benefit from the Cobalt in the Congo doing anything to stop it? If not, why do you think that is?
Kara: Mega-cap tech and EV companies at the top of the cobalt supply chain are not doing enough to meet their claims that the human rights of every participant in their supply chains are protected, that there is no child labor in their cobalt supply chains, and that mining operations in the Congo are conducted sustainably. The truth is that there is no cobalt from the Congo that is not tainted by an array of human rights abuses and environmental harm. The only reason I can think of as to why this is the case is that the people and environment of Africa are valued less than the people and environment of the global north.
Wilson: From a governmental standpoint is there more that can be done to stop the issues in the Congo?
Kara: Governments must do more to compel tech and EV companies to take responsibility for the Congolese people who scrounge for their cobalt. For instance, the U.S. has a law on the books – the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (2016) – that prohibits the import of goods made with forced labor or child labor. If this law were simply applied to the countless gadgets and EVs with cobalt in their batteries, I am sure tech and EV companies would quickly start taking the human rights of the people of the DR Congo more seriously.
Wilson: Would you say that the devastating effect of cobalt production in the Congo is known from a tech and governmental perspective around the world? Why has it taken you – and a select few others like Joe Rogan and Kyrie Irving – to highlight the issues with cobalt production in the country?
Kara: I am confident that almost every tech and EV company, as well as most governments across the global north, are aware of the human rights and environmental devastation caused by cobalt mining in the DR Congo. The tragic truth is this – the heart of Africa has been pillaged by foreign powers for centuries. Just as truth seekers such as Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, and George Washington Williams revealed the horrors of King Leopold’s genocidal ransacking of the Congo for rubber and ivory, so too must today’s truth seekers bring the cobalt pillage to the world’s attention. People like Joe Rogan and Kyrie Irving have used their platforms to amplify the voices of the Congolese people to a world that cannot function without their suffering. As that truth permeates the globe, a community of conscience will form and demand that tech and EV companies take responsibility for their cobalt supply chains.
The outcry from the general public, global influencers, and noteworthy individuals has picked up in recent weeks with the viral nature of Kara and Rogan’s podcast episode affecting the zeitgeist around cobalt. However, this is not the first time it has been brought up, with noise being made around Cobalt and the Congo for at least the past decade. Never before, however, has the public been given such a visceral description from a first-hand account of the disastrously deadly humanitarian impact on civilian lives and the environment in the Congo. No accounts at least that have become this talked about due to new media.
Time will tell if further awareness and indignation on the topic will help bring constructive change.
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