Congo’s miners dying to feed world’s hunger for electric cars
Solange Kanena sits on her broken orange sofa, heavily pregnant, resting. Looking around her three-room shack, she wonders how she will feed her eight children. Her husband died in a mining accident 10 days ago.
She has never held an iPhone and has no idea what an electric car is. But when the deep, muddy tunnel collapsed on her husband, he was digging for a commodity that is critical to the batteries of both: cobalt.
Last year about 70% of the world’s supply came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt places on Earth. Much of its cobalt comes from around this town.
“Without DR Congo there is no electric car industry and no green revolution,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, head of Rights and Accountability in Development (Raid), a UK-based campaign group.
It is estimated that 125m electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030, about 40 times more than at present. Britain is among a number of countries planning to phase out petrol and diesel in the next 20 years.
However, while electric car owners might feel happy about cutting carbon emissions, the dark side of the green revolution is all too visible in Kolwezi’s modern-day gold rush.
“The miners use no equipment more sophisticated than spades, shovels and plastic head torches as they burrow into the ground looking for the tell-tale blue veins of cobalt.“The conditions of mines are terrible,” said Josue Kashal, a lawyer for miners. “Any time a tunnel can collapse, but they keep going.””
In the shadow of shafts dug by huge multinational companies such as Glencore is what looks like a human anthill, one of the “artisanal” mines that account for 20% of production. Child labour is common and safety standards are non-existent.
In the Cinq Ans district, beneath every house is a warren of tunnels and holes, covered with sheets of orange tarpaulin, as hundreds of men and women dig into the red mud and children scurry about, bringing yellow jerrycans of water. There is even a hole beside a church where a gospel choir is in full song.
Known as creuseurs, or diggers, the miners use no equipment more sophisticated than spades, shovels and plastic head torches as they burrow into the ground looking for the tell-tale blue veins of cobalt. Those who strike lucky fill sacks with the metallic grey sludge.
Two holes sink to a dizzying depth in Tabue Joseph’s garden, where scrawny chickens peck at the earth. “A few years ago a local guy was digging a latrine in his yard and came across cobalt, so we all started,” he said.
“The conditions of mines are terrible,” said Josue Kashal, a lawyer for miners. “Any time a tunnel can collapse, but they keep going.”
Kanena knew how dangerous the job was. “I knew it was risky, particularly these days when it is raining,” she said. “But there is no other work.”
On February 28, when Alain did not come home she went to the hospital. “I found his dead body and collapsed crying,” she said.
There were nine bodies in all. But no accident was reported. According to Kashal, accidents are often kept secret: “They know the government and other partners may use it as an excuse to close the artisan mines and take over the land.”
This, he added, is why many of the diggers are hostile to outsiders. A crowd of them swarmed around me and a photographer when we visited and followed us on motorbikes.
“The authorities have told them: if you see any foreigners taking photos they are coming to take the riches of your country,” added his colleague Etienne Mwembo. He said that people were often told to keep their children at home when outsiders with cameras arrived.
It is common for children as young as nine to work in the mines, according to the lawyers. But the problem is not just child labour and accidents.
Van Woudenberg pointed out the irony: “The place we hope will clean up our planet is one of the most polluted on Earth.”
Once cobalt is found it is taken to a stream for washing by the women — in the same place where others are washing clothes and fetching drinking water.
The World Health Organisation says that exposure to cobalt can cause long-term health problems such as asthma, hard metal lung disease, dermatitis and decreased pulmonary function.
For all the risks the diggers take, they do not make the real profit. Most have what they call “sponsors” who pay them to dig the tunnels but then take a large cut of the profit.
Erick Simba, 35, a father of seven, is on his fifth tunnel, which could take three or four months, even digging with five other workers. A sponsor pays them £15 a week but will take half of what they find. The real profiteers, he says, are the Chinese dealers who buy the cobalt.
The main market at Musompo consists of 145 walled compounds, called “depots”, lining the main road. Inside Depot Tigre, under a line of red Chinese lanterns, Congolese workers unload sacks from rickety bicycles. The Chinese stand around smoking, glowering in gangster fashion, while the boss sits in a wire cubicle, pointing a measuring gun to test the cobalt content. On the wall is a price list.
“They rob us, giving us a low price and cheating us, saying the content is only 8% when it’s 50%,” said Simba.
“My wife also has to mine so that we have enough to eat.”
He laughs as he pulls his ancient phone out of his pocket: “Look at this, it’s the oldest model, while we are dying to produce your new ones. I’m the one who finds the richest cobalt for all these things we will never even touch in our lives.”
Others do not have a clue what the cobalt is used for. Kanena looked baffled when asked.
“It has so many uses in clothes and that,” she said. “It makes a lot of money for those who take it outside.”
The Chinese depots mostly sell the ore to a subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company that is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cobalt products. After smelting in Congo, it is exported and sold to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea.
These companies sell to battery manufacturers which then sell to corporations such as Apple, Dell and Microsoft.
“It’s the Chinese who are making most of the money and our government is in cahoots,” complained Kabeya Mutombo Johnson, 42, the president of a digger association.
Kolwezi now has Chinese casinos and restaurants, while flights in and out of the nearest international airport of Lubumbashi are filled with Chinese.
It is not just the prices that the diggers complain about. Last year the Chinese subsidiary company partnered with the local government and took over land being used for many artisan operations, evicting 614 families and turning the area into a vast opencast mine.
The company pledged to spend $12m (£9m) on machinery, safety and resettlement expenses but according to Kashal, the lawyer, left most people homeless.
“The Chinese only built 15 homes and left other people in the street,” he said.
“The compensation was too low — $3,000 for those who had already started digging and $5,000 for others.”
One of those evicted was Kabenda Fana, a car mechanic and father of nine. “We were given just two days to leave our home,” he said.
“They used very aggressive tactics, sending street boys to force us out. We had nowhere to go and take our stuff so we ended up on the street.”
The $5,000 he was given was not enough to buy a new place. “A good plot here costs $10,000 so we had to rent. Before, we had water and electricity; now we don’t have any of that. It’s a poor, miserable place. Our kids had to leave their school. It was completely inhuman.”
Recent weeks have brought angry clashes between diggers and Chinese at a new mine called Comis. Last Tuesday diggers climbed the slag heap and attempted to invade.
Comis is one of a planned 12 new “model mines” meant to improve standards but Johnson says they are simply an excuse to take over the land.
After a report into the horrendous conditions by Amnesty International in 2016, the London Metal Exchange launched an investigation into sources of cobalt. Some companies such as Apple now track their suppliers to try to ensure they are not using child labour or encouraging unsafe conditions.
It is unclear how this is done, given how murky and chaotic the supply chain is. Most of the product is sourced in China, which refines about 80% of the world’s cobalt chemicals.
Companies are now being stricter about where it comes from, according to Caspar Rawles, a cobalt expert at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
“But changing that is not an overnight process,” he said.
“Once it goes from the state it was in to semi-processed cobalt hydroxide, there is no way of knowing if it is industrially mined or artisanal.”
“Some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world are still making excuses for not investigating their supply chains,” complained Seema Joshi, head of business and human rights at Amnesty International.
“If companies are in the dark about where their cobalt comes from, so are their customers . . . The energy solutions of the future must not be built on human rights abuses.”
With Bloomberg predicting that cobalt demand will rise 47 times by 2030, attempts are under way to reduce its consumption in batteries and manufacturers are desperate to find new supplies.
A group of billionaires led by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, are financing a start-up that aims to build a “Google Maps for the Earth’s crust” to scour the globe for new sources of cobalt.