Cobalt Mines in DRC: Child Labor for an Electric World

Dylann Hanrahan ’25

Staff Writer

I remember a former teacher remarking that brands like Tesla and the rapidly growing sector of renewable energy/chargeable cars are not as environmentally friendly as they purport to be. Now in 2023, I am afraid the reality is even grimmer than the batteries themselves, but the reality of people forced to harvest the minerals that power our devices and electric cars.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s cobalt is under the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mineral is in extremely high demand as it is a needed component in the batteries currently used in electronic devices and vehicles. NPR reports that cobalt is used in the manufacturing of almost all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that are used in the world today.

The DRC is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, making the territory rich in natural resources. Despite this, The World Bank reported that in 2022 about sixty-two percent of Congolese lived on less than $2.15 a day, with about one out of six people living in extreme poverty. Bloomberg reported this February that “A growing pile of copper and cobalt worth about $1.5 billion is stranded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, caught up in a standoff over the future of one of the world’s biggest battery-metal mines.”

According to Amnesty International, an estimated 40,000 children (about twice the seating capacity of Madison Square Garden) are working in the mines in the DRC. Al Jazeera posted a photo gallery online in November 2022 titled, “DR Congo’s faltering fight against illegal cobalt mines.”

Forbes reported on the surprising causality of it all, specifically in informal, artisanal (ASM) mines. The workers use shovels and their bare hands to dig makeshift tunnels which they climb into to gather rocks containing cobalt ore. The cobalt they collect that day is then placed into burlap bags and sold to Chinese traders in local communities. This process, although different from the mechanized mine sites, results in cobalt identical to machine-run sites. Forbes writes, “…the two flows of minerals are routinely co-mingled.” Most of the DRC’s cobalt is shipped to China and then sold to make batteries around the world.

Siddharth Kara released Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives this past January to portray the moral implications of using electronic devices that are inescapable in our modern world. It is the first work of its kind as no one has dared to expose the testimonies of the people living, breathing, working, and dying for cobalt. Kara’s book should be at the top of each and every one of our reading lists as it points out that billions of people in the world cannot go about their daily lives without actively participating in both a “human rights and environmental catastrophe in the Congo.” Kara put his own life at risk in his investigation into the painful and brutal reality many are faced with every day, giving the people working in the mines a voice as the demand for cobalt grows daily.

Nick Grono, Australian human rights campaigner and CEO of Freedom Fund explains, “Siddharth Kara’s powerfully told and meticulously researched book exposes the dirty secret that much of our ‘clean’ energy is powered by the violent exploitation, and blood, of children in the Congo. He makes a compelling case for the urgent need to address this modern form of slavery.”

According to a 2016 finding by The Washington Post, the average cobalt miner makes $2-3 a day, with more than two million Congolese relying on the mines for their livelihood.

To make matters even worse, cobalt does not only supply what Apple needs for our iPhones and MacBooks, but the mines serve the US military as well. Foreign Policy released a piece titled, “America’s Military Depends on Minerals that China Controls.” The article has a clear security focus and states, “Despite the fact that the United States is not engaged in direct conflict, the war in Ukraine has depleted U.S. stocks of some types of ammunition to ‘uncomfortably low’ levels.” This emphasizes that on top of the growing demands from Silicon Valley, conflict and the economic side of war are at the forefront of the growing demand for cobalt.

Many western cobalt buyers are attempting to look the other way and distance themselves from their guilty conscience. So, what do you suppose the future of electronic devices is? Is there a more ethical way to harvest cobalt? Electric car companies are pouring billions into the electric battery industry. In January, Tesla committed $3.6 billion to a Nevada Plant for EV Battery Production. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The vehicles supposedly making the world a better place are not running on petrol, but they are supporting a business that ruins the lives of thousands. Human rights abuses are highlighted often in our media, but we neglect to understand the backstory of the phones we are all holding, the cars we are driving, and each and every machine we use.

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