“A young woman named Priscille stood in one of the pits with a plastic bowl in her right hand. She rapidly scooped dirt and water with the bowl and flung it onto a sieve a few feet in front of her. Her motions were precise and symmetrical, as if she were a piece of machinery designed only for its purpose. After the sieve was filled with gray-colored mud and sand, Priscille yanked the sieve up and down until only the sand remained. That sand contained traces of cobalt, which she scooped with her plastic bowl into a pink raffia sack. I asked Priscille how long it took her to fill one sack with the sand. “If I work very hard for twelve hours, I can fill one sack each day,” she replied. At the end of the day, the women helped each other to haul their fifty-kilogram sacks about a kilometer to the front of the site where négociants purchased each from them for around $0.80. Priscille said that she had no family and lived in a small hut on her own. Her husband used to work at this site with her, but he died a year ago from a respiratory illness. They tried to have children, but she miscarried twice. “I thank God for taking my babies,” she said. “Here it is better not to be born.”
This terrifying quote is taken from Siddharth Kara’s book “Cobalt Red – how the blood of the Congo powers our lives” that you may remember me mentioning in the first post of the year, before it appeared but after Kara had appeared on Joe Rogan to talk about it. As a reminder, he has done what no EV buyer or Western politician promoting the “green energy revolution” has ever done, namely travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and at considerable risk to his own life, visited all the large cobalt mines around the country that together make up around 70% of the cobalt that powers the Western world’s electrification. That it doesn’t power the DRC itself or provide it with any riches is well illustrated not only by the $1-2 the diggers earn per day, but also by the fact that the country’s own electrification has so far reached less than 10% of the population. Not measured in EV’s, but in lightbulbs.
The DRC is basically filled with all the minerals, metals and precious stones you can think of, yet its population is one of the world’s poorest. Over the last 150 years it’s been plundered more times than anyone can remember and when it wasn’t by Western colonialists, it was then just as effectively by one in the long line of ruthless dictators who enriched themselves on the back of an increasingly poor population. The latest robbery is for cobalt of which there is plenty in various parts of the country. Some of it can be found on the surface with a simple shovel, but most of the reserves require tunnels to be dug. A fair amount of such tunnels are artisanal, dug by simple workers with shovels, mostly so small that only young children fit in them. Artisanal tunnels crumble regularly, on average once a week somewhere in the country, thereby severely injuring the children or burying them alive. That’s right – 10-11-year old children are regularly buried alive at dozens of meters under ground in complete darkness. 80% of the mines are owned by Chinese operators who share the profits with the dictator in power at the time. Tax that would potentially support the development of local communities is however something they do all they can to avoid.
When Priscille and the thousands of other diggers across the country have carried their heavy sacks to their “négociant” (the dealer who pays them), these are transported away for further refinement on enormous, diesel-powered trucks. The traffic to and from the main mines is so intense that there is often long colons of trucks blocking the roads for miles, together with the mine operations themselves contributing to the terrible air quality plaguing most of the primitive villages the diggers live in, and heavily polluting their waterways and lakes. This is a big problem given fish is an essential food for many. When the trucks reach their destination, their load is mixed with the load of all the other trucks and from that point on, there is no way of separating cobalt from one place from that of another. There is thus no way for any company to claim that their cobalt hasn’t been excavated without child labor. Then again, Kara didn’t find one single mine on his travels where hundreds of children were not heavily at work.
Mines do not appear out of nowhere. They have been developed by mining companies starting around 30 years ago and have seen an exponential growth in the last 10 years when the race for cobalt really got going. There used to be villages, jungle and forests where the mines are today, and the few people who live long enough to remember those days will tell you they were never rich, but they had a decent life. That changed when the miners came, chopped the trees, burnt the villages, polluted the local water and with time the air, and everything then got worse again when the Chinese mining companies took over. Today the same people struggle to survive in primitive sheds and have no other choice than to work in the mines. I guess someone who earns $1-2 a day is technically not a slave, but it’s a very subtle difference. Most don’t live beyond 30 years. And like Priscille, those without children will thank the God, many somehow still believe in, for that.
Kara’s book appeared in January and is no literary masterpiece, but the fact that its contents hasn’t lead to an intense debate and calls for an immediate stop to this murderous practice, which indirectly is subsidized by Western governments through EV subsidies out of our tax money, says a lot about our society. Around 120 years ago, Belgian king Leopold II spread terror across all of central Africa, killing millions, at the time for rubber. Back then, Westerners could be forgiven for not knowing what was going on, given the lack of information. Today and especially after Siddharth Kara’s book, the information is there for anyone who is interested. This makes us all guilty because there is cobalt in pretty much every appliance you have at home, but the quantitiees are measured in grams and not in kg’s as in EV’s, where a large EV battery pack contains around 10 kgs of cobalt. There are currently around 16 million EV’s in the world and children are dying in the Congo every day for them to function. International climate agreement calls for that number to increase more than five-fold over the coming decades. Putting aside the simple fact that at no point in human history have we succeeded in doubling (much less increasing five-fold) the amount of any input material in a 10-year period, you wonder how many children are yet to die, buried alive, handicapped with crushed legs, or from the poisoned water and air, until the dime drops.
Since reading the book and realizing the full scale of the catastrophy, I’ve taken upon me to try to spread the word about it as suprisingly, its publication has not led to what should have been obvious calls for these inacceptable practices to be stopped immediately. Engaging on Twitter on the subject with so called environmentalists (not a practice I would recommend to anyone with heart problems) typically gives two types of reactions. The first is a pretty astounding level of whataboutism, along the lines of oil and natural gas excavation being terrible as well. I’m the first to agree it is, but to my knowledge children aren’t systematically killed on oil wells. The other is to refer to the constant progress made on batteries and that soon, these problems will be behind us – so let’s close our eyes until that’s the case? It’s true that batteries will evolve but it’s neither for next week, nor for next year. And yes, you can build EV batteries without using cobalt (Tesla does for a fair part of their cars), but that reduces the energy density (i.e. the range), the stability (notably increasing the fire risk) and the longevity. And what replaces the cobalt is mostly nickel, of which Russia is the world’s leading producer.
Contrary to these people I think we need to act now, since what goes on in the DRC is far from acceptable in a world that at least on the face of it makes a lot of noise on equal opportunities for all and not just the few. Not a single phone and certainly not a single EV should be built until the mining companies in the DRC can clearly demonstrate that child labor and artisanal mining is a thing of the past, that workers are paid a decent salary (we’d still be well below $10 per hour here, so it wouldn’t kill them), that they’ve built schools for the diggers’ children, and that they’re taking serious action against the environmental catastrophies they continue to cause.
I’m far too old and cynical for actually thinking that will happen, but I do think it’s at least our duty to try. There’s a few hundred of you reading this blog every week and my ambition has always been to give you an enjoyable few minutes on your weekend, late night or pause in the working day. I fully realize reading the above hasn’t been enjoyable at all and for the first time, I will ask a favour of you. If each of you can share this post with 2-3 of your friends and ask them to do the same, then just maybe we can slowly make a change to this scandal. The children currently digging in the mining districts of the Congo are doomed anyway, but perhaps we can contribute to a better life for the next generation. It’s a small hope but if you don’t believe in that, it’s very difficult to believe in anything. Thank you!
Siddharth Kara’s book can be bought on Amazon here. Joe Rogan’s podcast witih him can be found here. If you’re new to the blog, you may want to read one of my previous posts on the topic of the unsustainability of EV’s that you’ll for example find here.