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The Problem with Cobalt Mining

As technology rapidly advances, demand for minerals and elements to build devices grows alongside it. One such element is cobalt: a hard metal found in the earth’s crust, largely within ore and mineral deposits. This cobalt is one of the most important materials used to make smartphones, turbines, batteries, computers, and electric cars. The majority of cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so most cobalt mines are situated there - in fact, up to 3/4 of all cobalt used globally is mined there. If you own a smartphone, chances are that its cobalt was mined in the DRC.

Though these mines are large and plentiful, the people who work in them unsafe working conditions and discriminatory practices, all while being unable to fight for themselves with a lack of trade unions and an inadequate recognition of workers’ rights.

To start, these mines operate under categorically unsafe working conditions. Most miners use rudimentary devices like shovels and pickaxes to extract mineral ores and gather them by hand. To cut costs, hard-hats and appropriate safety gear is a rarity only found in larger mining companies, and the possibility of the trenches they work under collapsing is a real danger. If the tunnel to the mine or the roof itself collapses, miners are trapped under heavy rock and rubble with no escape. In June 2019, the tunnel leading to a cobalt mine collapsed, killing 40 workers. Accidents are the horrifying norm in these cobalt mines as companies look to cut costs wherever possible, including by neglecting miners.

Further, workers are paid near to nothing for long, laborious hours of backbreaking work. The DRC is one of the five poorest countries in the world. What’s more, in 2022, 62% of the Congolese population lived on $2.15 a day. While Congo’s severe poverty goes back decades and is attributed to a range of factors, the slave wages paid to cobalt miners certainly doesn’t help ameliorate the situation. The difficulty of mining doesn’t translate to deserving wages, as pay scarcely covers living expenses. So, as investors and company executives cash in on the tech-boom, the miners who toil the most gain the least.

Moreover, cobalt mines are notorious for child labour; children openly work in these mines, slipping by the monitoring government. Desperate parents decide, arguably reasonably, that it makes more sense for the child to have food for the day than waste time at school where there isn’t money to be made. The issue has grown so rampant that it’s estimated that up to 40,000 children, some as young as 6, work in the DRC’s cobalt mines. In smaller mines, children are even drugged to stave their hunger.

To add to this wretched practice, cobalt mining pollutes and contaminates the environment. Lake Tshangalele, a body of water which cuts across the DRC, was found to have high levels of cobalt but also aluminium, copper and zinc – all of which are mined in the region as well. However, many communities rely on Lake Tshangalele and its fish as a source of food. Therefore, the mining boom in Congo also poses health risks for people not involved, as their environment is contaminated, and wildlife like the fish in Tshangalele becomes toxic to eat. If that wasn’t enough, mining of cobalt doesn’t just pollute the environment, it can also spell trouble for the health of miners. Ailments like tuberculosis and dermatitis are all too common amongst workers who spend long hours around toxic chemicals without protective gear. After the cobalt is extracted, it is washed onsite, a task typically done by female workers. As a result, many women are in direct exposure to highly concentrated and toxic elements. In fact, it was found that pregnant women who worked on the mines were significantly more likely to have babies with birth defects or even stillbirths.

Ultimately, cobalt will only grow in importance as technology develops, and with it, so will the size of its mines in DRC. For a country already plagued by poverty and political turmoil, the majority of the DRC will only continue to suffer as their natural cobalt reserves are plundered by wealthy companies for the next Tesla or iPhone.

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