The Disturbing Reality of Cobalt Mining for Rechargeable Batteries


1 year ago



Siddharth Kara

1 appearance

Siddharth Kara is an author and expert on modern-day slavery, human trafficking, and child labor. Look for his new book, "Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives," on January 31, 2023.


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Please detail the journey that you went on to write this book and why it's of concern to you. Yeah, okay. Well, I started traveling to the Congo five years ago. I've been doing research on slavery and child labor for about 20 years, traveling all around the world, documenting slaves and child labor as human trafficking. This came across my radar maybe seven years ago. People started talking in the field about cobalt, cobalt's in the batteries, it's in the Congo, the conditions are horrible, and I had no idea. I never heard of this. So I started planning to take trips to get down there. And I took my first trip back in 2018. My plan was I thought I would try to lay the groundwork to do some academic research. And the things I saw there were so appalling and heart wrenching and urgent that I changed my approach. I thought people need to know about this. I need to write a book. And so I started planning more trips and I just kept going back. And the reason this is important, Joe, and we can dig into this in more depth. About the whole history of slavery, I mean, I'm going back centuries, never, never in human history has there been more suffering that generated more profit and was linked to the lives of more people around the world ever, ever in history than what's happening in the Congo right now. And the reason I say that is this. The cobalt that's being mined in the Congo is in every single lithium ion rechargeable battery manufactured in the world today. Every smartphone, every tablet, every laptop, and crucially, every electric vehicle. So you and I, we can't function on a day-to-day basis without cobalt and three-fourths of the supply is coming out of the Congo. And it's being mined in appalling, heart wrenching, dangerous conditions. And so that's why people need to know because by and large, the world doesn't know what's happening in the Congo. It's something that people sort of know peripherally that they call them conflict minerals and they know that they're coming from an area of the world that's very poor. But I don't think people are aware of how horrible it is. There have been some documentaries that have been done on it and they're all terrifying. Yeah. So conflict minerals was phase one and that's actually not cobalt. What is, what's term, what does it refer to conflict minerals? So conflict minerals, also called the 3TG minerals are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. And those are in the eastern Congo. And that catastrophe started around the year 2000, late 1990s, 2000. Shortly after the Rwandan genocide. The militias moved in and the eastern Congo is sitting on some of the largest reserves in the world of those 3TG minerals, especially tantalum. And those are all used in microprocessors. And you can think back to around the year 2000, mobile phones first started coming out and gaining traction. I still remember my little StarTac flip phone that I had from Motorola. You remember that? Sure. And all that supply was coming out of eastern Congo. Militias and warlords were forcing the local population at gunpoint, machete point to dig this stuff out. And it was flowing up into the formal supply chain into mostly those first generation cell phones. And that became known as conflict minerals. Cobalt started later. Cobalt really took off about 10, 12 years ago. And it's in another part of the country, in the mining provinces in the southeast of the Congo. And Cobalt took off because it was started to be used in lithium ion batteries to maximize their charge and stability. And it just so happens that the Congo, just as it was sitting on more than half the world's reserves of coltan and of course a lot of gold and diamonds and other things, is sitting on more cobalt than the rest of the planet combined. And it's in a small little patch of the Congo, southeastern corner, a part that used to be called Katanga. And before anybody knew what was happening, Chinese government, Chinese mining companies took control of almost all the big mines. And the local population has been displaced, is under duress, and they dig in absolutely subhuman gut-wrenching conditions for a dollar a day, feeding cobalt up the supply chain into all the phones, all the tablets, and especially electric cars. And we're looking at a video now. Jamie, what is this, the mines? This is his video. So I think so. This is so crazy to see. This is the bottom of the supply chain of your iPhone, of your Tesla, of your Samsung. I'm just naming those companies. It's all of them, right? All of them. We're not just picking on them. And here's what you need to know, Joe, about this video. I was the first outsider to get into this mine. And that's why it's just a really short video that I was able to take. This is an industrial cobalt mine where there's not supposed to be one artisanal miner. Now that's the term used for people who are just digging by hand as opposed to tractors and excavators. There's not supposed to be one here. That's what the story is told at the top of the chain. This mine, and I can name it, it's called Shabara. There's not supposed to be one artisanal miner here, according to the consumer-facing tech companies and EV companies buying this cobalt. Lo and behold, I walk into this place, and this is what I see. There's more than 15,000 human beings crammed into that pit, digging by hand. And if you have sound, you hear the mallets, you hear the shouting, you hear the grunts. It's a massive humanity you might expect to see a scene like this. So there's a term that gets used clean cobalt. There's no clean cobalt. It's not real. No, no. It's all marketing. It's all PR. It's a fiction. Just like that place, there's not supposed to be any artisanal mining there. It's all done industrially. That's the story told at the top of the chain. And people assume, people, I mean, the marketing teams at big tech and EV companies assume, well, who's going to go down there and actually walk into the place and grab a video that shows no, it's actually all raw human force that is clanking that cobalt out of the ground. So there's no clean cobalt. There's not a single company on planet earth that makes a device that has a rechargeable battery in it that can reliably and justifiably claim that their cobalt isn't coming from sources like that. And that's the truth that needs to get out there. That's the truth people need to understand because this is a story that goes back generations. There's these fictions told at the top of the chain about what conditions are like at the bottom. And truth seekers have to go find that truth and enlighten civilization so that people get agitated about it and want to do something about it. So there's no clean cobalt. Let's just make that totally abundantly clear. And anyone that claims otherwise is either peddling in falsehoods or is recklessly ignorant of the truth. Are there any industrialized cobalt mines that use machinery and don't use slavery and don't use child labor and don't use these people that live in unimaginable poverty? I've never seen one. And I've been to almost all the major industrial cobalt mines. Here's why I say that. Number one, they all or almost all will have scenes like that on them. Millions of individuals clanking away for a dollar or two a day. They don't have safety equipment, all that stuff that cobalt's toxic, toxic to breathe. They're breathing it in all day. No masks, no filtration systems. No masks, no gloves. Half those guys are in flip flops. So almost all the industrial mines will have scenes like that. So that's number one. They'll say there are no artisanal miners there, no children there. And if you like zoom in, you'll see that amongst that sea of humanity, there are thousands of kids, teenage boys in this case, because that requires a certain amount of force to clank away in that pit. Number two, there are hundreds of other artisanal mining sites scattered in the mining provinces outside of industrial mines. There are hundreds of industrial miners in the industrial mines. And then just on the other side of the fence, there'll be a sea of humanity digging there as well, because it's not like at the fence, the ore body stops. There's copper, cobalt, other things outside as well. So there'll be hundreds of sites where there are hundreds of thousands of people across the mining provinces digging. All that production is sold right back to the industrial mining companies. So it enters their supply chain as well. And then so they take what they extract with industrial equipment, artisanal miners inside the mine, artisanal miners, including children outside the mine, it all gets dumped together into the same batch of acids to process and then flows up the chain. And again, no one can reasonably claim that their cobalt, even if they say that industrial mine, totally clean, don't believe what Siddharth is saying. That's a made up fake video. They can't demonstrate reliably that all the other cobalt being dug up by kids in thousands of sites across the mining provinces isn't also flowing into their supply chain. Is there another source of cobalt in the world that's ethically supplied? So last year, so 2021 is the last year, there's data, about 72%, almost three fourths of the world supply of cobalt came out of a small patch of the Congo. And then there's like 3% Russia, 3% Australia, 3% Morocco, you know, there's everyone else is 3%. And I don't know what the conditions are there. I imagine in Australia, mining follows standards of dignity and decency and labor and sustainability and so on. But there's not enough cobalt outside of the Congo to meet demand. And demand projections are a four, five, 600% increase in cobalt demand in the next decade or two, primarily being driven by adoption of electric vehicles. Each battery pack in an EV requires up to 10 kilograms of refined cobalt. That's 1000 times what's required for a smartphone. So huge demand as the world transitions from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, which is a net good thing, except for the people in the Congo. So there's not enough other cobalt out there. Even if all the non-Kongo cobalt was perfectly sourced, there's not enough other cobalt out there to meet demand. These companies that we talked about that use all this stuff, whether it's electric vehicle companies or cell phone manufacturers, obviously they're aware of this. Yes, no question. They have to be. Have they made any attempts to mitigate this in any way? The truth, Joe, is no, not sufficient efforts. Most of what is done is PR statements, marketing. All these companies will say we have zero tolerance policies on child labor. We ensure standards of dignity and human rights for every member of our supply chain down to the mining level. They'll all say this, down to the mining level. They say it. They may throw some money at the odd NGO or coalition or alliance that's meant to be working on these things. Nothing's actually happening on the ground. That's what my book will demonstrate as I take the reader on the journey from place to place, mind to mind. There's this fiction that exists outside of the Congo of what companies are doing and what the conditions are like. Then there's the reality underneath those layers of obfuscation. There's the reality. There's the truth on the ground. Not one company, not one business alliance, not one entity up the chain is doing remotely enough to ensure that the dignity and human rights of the people of the Congo, not to mention the environment because although mining companies are just polluting and clear-cutting forests to build and expand mines, they're not doing nearly enough to respect the people and earth of the Congo while we outside enjoy our renewable, gadget-driven lifestyles.