EDITOR’S COMMENT: electric car batteries require Cobalt and in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, child slaves are used to extract the mineral out of the ground. But, if it makes middle class London hippies feel good…

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Kongolo Mashimango Reagen used to spend his days carrying 25kg sacks of cobalt from small mines in a southern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is so rich in minerals that large deposits can be found just metres below the surface. 

Those days in Kolwezi would start at 5am and accidents were common as tunnels dug by hand in the bright red earth collapsed. Miners drank beer, whisky and smoked to get through the day, he recalls. His uncle sold the cobalt — a critical metal for electric car batteries — to local traders known as négociants, and Kongolo received free food and accommodation as his payment.

“It was very tiring, very difficult,” he says, standing on the edge of a makeshift football pitch by a school in Kolwezi in the DRC’s south-east. “I watched too many collapses. I have seen children dying in the mines.” The 17-year-old escaped the mines and now attends the school with the help of Good Shepherd, a Catholic charity.

For more than a decade the global digital revolution has been enabled by places like Kolwezi, a mining town dotted with small Chinese casinos and faded Belgian colonial bungalows. The world’s largest mining companies rub shoulders with miners who dig copper and cobalt out of the earth by hand with little or no safety protection. 

While the majority of Congo’s cobalt comes from large mining sites where rock is dug up by trucks from the bottom of deep pits, a growing proportion is coming from an estimated 150,000 “artisanal” or informal miners who dig by hand in Kolwezi. The unregulated practice is increasingly drawing in children like Kongolo. And last year accounted for an estimated 30 per cent of Congo’s cobalt — the country mines more than 70 per cent of the global total — according to Gecamines, Congo’s state-owned miner. 

Congo’s dominance presents a growing dilemma for carmakers and those in the supply chain as they look to meet a rapid increase in demand for electric vehicles and batteries. If they try to improve conditions on the ground they face a series of additional risks, from the threat of corruption to monitoring and enforcing measures to avoid deaths from informal mining and the presence of children on these sites. And while manufacturers cannot afford to ignore Congo they must also know that untraceable metal — from these informal miners — leaks into the global supply chain via refineries in China, ending up in batteries, cars and smartphones sold in the west. 

Thanks in part to high cobalt prices in 2018, a lot of this activity now takes place within the sites of the large mining groups, including Switzerland-based Glencore and Hong Kong-listed China Molybdenum, which sprawl across large areas of border villages. In June 43 informal miners died when part of a pit collapsed at Glencore’s largest mine outside Kolwezi. State authorities sent the army to the site as well as China Moly’s giant copper and cobalt mine 90km east in Tenke Fungurume to remove up to 10,000 informal miners who were trespassing.

“A lot of people [buyers] realise they can no longer shut their eyes and pretend it’s not happening, which was the strategy for quite a while,” says Indigo Ellis, an Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “There are no real viable alternatives to cobalt from the DRC at the moment so they will have to start engaging with it.”

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