With the recent technological advancements of the 21st century, cobalt has become a key ingredient of the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries. Used in electric vehicles (EV) it gives them the range and durability to compete with their petrol powered counterpart. For batteries, Cobalt is key for boosting energy density and battery life because it keeps the layered structure stable as lithium ions get reversibly stuffed into and extracted from the cathode during battery operation.
In addition, Cobalt is widely used in the production of smartphones and computers for which demand has grown exponentially in the past decade and these products are now part of our daily lives. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the global leader in cobalt production and accounts for over 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves.
Widely considered to be the richest country in the world, regarding natural resources however, the DRC one of the poorest countries in terms of GDP per capita ranking 90th. Its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth more than $24 trillion. The DRC has a history of corporations and governments exploiting its natural resources for monetary gain.
The dangers of Cobalt mining in the DRC
Cobalt mining in the DRC started a decade ago in the southeastern province of Katanga. International mining companies are increasingly attracted to the DRC’s copper belt in the southern part of the country. Mining companies in the DRC include both large, international mining corporations as well as Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining companies. This is where the problem occurs, as regulations aren’t enforced or checked to ensure the cobalt is being sourced ethically. This allows children to routinely work in these mines, often under hazardous conditions. Whilst mining is on the DRC’s list of hazardous activities for which children’s work is forbidden, most of the cobalt mining in the DRC is done informally, where monitoring and enforcement are poor.
Although the working conditions in the DRC are becoming more known, international companies are not shy to order their supplies from here. In 2020 Tesla planned to use cobalt from mining giant Glencore, the largest industrial supplier of cobalt in the world, to build lithium-ion batteries at its new factories. The cobalt will be sourced from the DRC, where Glencore has been operating a copper mine in the Katanga region since 2008. Tesla defended its cobalt sourcing in a company report. “Because Tesla recognizes the higher risks of human rights issues within cobalt supply chains, particularly for child labor in the DRC, we have made a significant effort to establish processes to remove these risks from our supply chain.”
Since Tesla has no control on how Glencore sources its cobalt, they cannot confidently say it is ethically sourced. This is the price big brands such as Apple, BMW and Microsoft have to pay to continually improve their products to meet the ever-growing demand. This results in their supply chains being compromised.
The beneficiaries of Cobalt mining
The DRC supplies about 70% of the world’s Cobalt however, the majority of its industrial cobalt mines are owned or financed by foreign corporations from China, Australia, Canada and more. This dynamic has disproportionately favored these foreign powers. In particularly, China and has led to hostility among the Congolese government and its domestic mining companies.
Prominent mining corporations in the DRC:
- African Metals Corp- Canada
- Amani Gold- Australia
- AVZ Minerals Limited- Australia
- Banro Corporation- Canada
- Metorex- China
- MMG Limited- China
- Nzuri Copper Limited- China
- Glencore Xstrata Plc- Switzerland
Of the most prominent mining companies in the DRC, none are owned by the people of the DRC. The DRC’s top five exports are refined copper, cobalt, unrefined copper, copper ores, and crude oil. Together these exports represent 92.2% of the country’s total exports by value. Over 70% of the country’s government budget come from mining. Whereas the people see very little to no profits from the excavation of their land.
Only 9% of the population have access to reliable electricity, the rest rely on wood, which destroys the carbon-rich forests, or diesel-powered generators, which are unreliable, polluting, and expensive. Energy in some places can cost more than in an average European city. In terms of the length of its rail network, the DRC ranks 116th in the world. The DRC has about 40 designated national roads, but most are unpaved, and many are impassable due to disrepair or not yet built.
Just to put this into perspective: the DRC is the 11th largest country in the world and the most-populous officially Francophone country in the world. Corruption is rampant in the DRC, it ranks 166th on the Corruption Perceptions Index. It seems that no governmental body within the country can be trusted to re-invest the profits of the mineral sales. This can be seen from the lack of infrastructure projects by the government or the hundreds of corporations operating within the country.
Ways to combat the dependence on DRC’s Cobalt
Strides must be made to combat the unethical practices of sourcing cobalt in the DRC. Are the lives of many young vulnerable children worth your electric car running for a few extra miles? Or your smartphone’s battery life lasting longer? Greed, corruption, and materialism are the reasons for the current state of the EV and smartphone supply chain. Governmental bodies domestically and internationally need to implement new legislation to mitigate the problem.
Examples such as the U.S. banning cotton and tomato products sourced from Xinjiang province of China. Due to the current human right violations being committed by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) onto the Uyghurs population. Shows that sanctions can be put in place to try and enforce change or make a stand. As of January 1st 2023 Germany passed a new Supply Chain Act that means German companies now face fines of up to 2% of their global turnover if they cannot demonstrate environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) transparency in their supply chain, this extends to their suppliers. A law such as this, in the DRC would go a long way to fix the issue of forced labor in the mining industry.
Change at the top of the supply chain through corporations would also help. Many companies are now looking for ways to lessen their dependence on Cobalt. In years gone by Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that Tesla plans to shift more electric cars to Lithium Iron phosphate (LFP) batteries in order to overcome nickel and cobalt supply concerns. As of today, Tesla confirmed that nearly half of all its vehicles produced are using cobalt-free LFP batteries.
The world is starting to wake up to unethically sourced cobalt used by some of the biggest corporations. With the help of key figures and organizations such as Siddharth Kara documenting the conditions of the workers in the mines of Katanga in his recent guest appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast and published book ‘Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.’ Charities such as IheartAfrica document and give an insight into the lives of families and children affected by mining industry in the DRC.