Stories That Matter: Tracing Conflict Minerals in Africa
The energy revolution has a dark side in Africa, which Tesla, Apple, and other harbingers of the plugged-in future must contend with. Nicolas Niarchos shines a light on some dark supply chains.
You are probably reading this on a device built from cobalt. The lustrous, silvery-blue metal is an essential component of most lithium ion batteries, which rely on small cathode structures of cobalt ions for the best energy storage. Your cell phones, airpods, laptops, and pretty much any device you can recharge, including electric vehicles, more than likely has cobalt in it. Alloys of the metal are also used in jet turbines and gas turbine generators, meaning that cobalt is crucial to ending our reliance on fossil fuels, an essential element of the green revolution.
Yet in a statement in April, a wing of the United States Department of Energy said that cobalt is “considered the highest material supply chain risk for electric vehicles,” a gentler way of saying cobalt is at the center of a large amount of human suffering. The various ways cobalt is extracted from the Earth involve little oversight of inhumane working conditions, which often result in death or injury. Thousands of children are employed or enslaved in such mines that burp toxic chemicals and spill into neighborhoods.
In “The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush,” Nicolas Niarchos, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that often only makes the headlines when an outbreak of Ebola or war occurs. But the nation is enriched with precious metals, which has led to the proliferation of “artisanal” mining, in which people start digging beneath their own houses, crafting tunnels that can spiral many meters below ground. Not surprisingly, residents near these mines have been found to have higher levels of cobalt in their blood and urine, among other health effects.
We talked to Niarchos, who spent more than eight weeks across several trips to get an up-close look at where the majority of the world’s cobalt comes from. The iPhone 13? The 2021 Tesla Model S? The teeth marks of the supply chain are becoming harder to scrub off for the latest and greatest devices. And the companies leading the next chapter of industrialization can’t keep ignoring the conditions under which our future is being constructed.
How did you first start covering Africa and how do you approach a subject that’s continent-sized?
Niarchos: I started writing about refugees in 2015. I’m originally Greek and was traveling home while I was still a full-time fact-checker. And it was a time that a great many refugees were arriving in Greece. And I said to one of my editors, “listen, can I go out and write about this? You don’t have anyone else here.” And they said, “yeah, go and do it.”
At that time I had written a couple of stories for The Nation. And I had written a couple of stories about arts and culture and things like that for The New Yorker. And suddenly, I was in the middle of this very, sort of real reporting situation. What I noticed is that you had a lot of focus on the Syrian refugees, some focus on the Afghan refugees, but already, you’re starting to see a lot of African refugees coming over. So that kind of piqued my interest.
When you’re traveling to Africa, how do you work with translators, interviewing all these different people if it’s not your native language?
Niarchos: Luckily, I speak French and most people in Congo speak French. I had a local journalist with me at all times. It’s a good idea to have somebody just to kind of get you through. There’s a lot of a lot of situations in which you’re stopped by police under false pretenses and so on. I think that local journalists understand how to deal with those situations. And oftentimes, if you were not with a local, you could end up in trouble very quickly.
I was very lucky to have a local journalist, who is a mining journalist by trade. He works for a sort of mining review and they do quite a lot of paid content. But in his free time, he likes to help foreign journalists to come in and report more thoroughly some of the stories that he sees, and can’t report on a day-to-day basis, because he works for an industry publication.
Did you see any change or response from major players in the cobalt industry because of the story? Has Elon Musk acknowledged it?
Niarchos: No, not really. I think Tesla is having a problem getting lithium at the moment. There have been initiatives to look at lower cobalt batteries and [cobalt-free] batteries. At the moment, the technology’s not really there if you want to have long-range electric vehicles.
What I do know is that there were some companies that were, and, unfortunately, it was all off-record conversation, so I can’t really talk about who or where, but there were companies that were upset and would call up and say, “How can you say this?” But they didn’t want to go on record and they didn’t want to explain themselves. So it kind of ended up being them feeling upset, but they were also just completely unwilling to participate.
And whether that’s from a lack of ability to recognize that they’re part of the problem, or for some other reason, that’s basically the limit of what I’ve seen. But on the other side, I haven’t seen, like, a huge groundswell of people being interested.
I mean, there are people who read it on Twitter and that kind of thing, but it’s not as if there’s an end cobalt movement that sort of sprung up around the piece. I am turning the piece into a book. Maybe as these things develop, there will be more scrutiny of this issue.
I really do hope so. I think the profile of this issue really needs to be raised. But it is also really frustrating, like, I’ve interviewed somebody from SpaceX before, and they gave me everything on background. And I’m like, well, this is a totally useless interview, I can’t use any of it. Why did you waste my time with this? Like, if you really want to talk to me about this issue, then you should talk to me about this issue. You know, Apple and Tesla and all these companies are very cryptic. I guess the question is what kind of response would you like to see? Like an end cobalt campaign?
Niarchos: I actually don’t think an end cobalt campaign is the best idea. I think basically what should happen is that all these companies that are profiting off batteries should go into DRC, and if they want to use cobalt, which, you know, why shouldn’t they? There are ways of mining it that are not deleterious to people’s health and not more polluting than mining anything else through industrial mining.
But they should go there, and they should provide alternatives. For them, it’s an incredibly fertile piece of the world as well. So they could create farming alternatives, they could create alternative means of income, they could create battery factories and so on. Then that would require them and also Western governments to deal with some of the real issues around corruption in that country and why they still — even though they have these huge sort of hydroelectric projects, and so on — they still can’t have regular power in most cities.
A real engagement with those infrastructure- and poverty-related issues is very important. And I think also just like really sitting around and thinking what can be done to engage the population of DRC in agriculture, or building or whatever other types of industry are out there. The agriculture one is very interesting, because, actually, I think it’s a great opportunity for whoever tries to make it work. And by that, I mean, you know, most of the DRC is something where 90 percent of the food there is imported or in that region, and prices are super, super high as a result, so it contributes to this cycle of poverty.
If they were able to grow their own food, if they were able to create their own farms, I think you would be able to a. feed the population, b. cut down on pollution with regard to imports, and c. kind of create a sustainable lifestyle for people who live there that doesnt involve mining or going down the mines without any safety equipment or anything like that.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
“I think what happens is that there is a further shift away from this type of artisanal mining. I can’t see it continuing along this road,” Nicolas Niarchos says. “However, there’s a great deal of political instability at the moment in DRC. In fact, in a province in which these mines are based, the governor has kind of fallen out with the president, and he’s kind of been kicked out, and he’s trying to come back and blah, blah, blah. So I think that any change for the next couple of years will probably come slowly. I do think that they’re trying to sell off as many of the mines as possible to turn into large industrial mines. I think that artisanal mining will continue to exist.”
“I think the Chinese are also scrutinizing their businesses at the moment in DRC. And probably they’ll try to instigate some more sort of safety controls and so on,” Niarchos continues. “However, I don’t see the situation improving at the moment, I actually see it deteriorating, and I see Congolese people losing out. I think there was a great moment in which the Congolese government could have sort of turned everything around and privatized in a way that was giving back more to the Congolese people. But in fact, that opportunity, which came at the end of the second Congo War, so at the end of the aughts, they kind of locked themselves into this sort of corrupt cycle that they’re in at the moment. So I see this continuing for quite a while.”
Read: More on the Cobalt Industry in Congo
Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, an adjunct professor and director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights, and researcher Serra Cremer Iyi, both at the Université de Genève, detail how companies in the cobalt supply chain can source responsible cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in The Conversation: “As Cobalt Demand Booms, Companies Must Do More to Protect Congolese Miners,” November 25, 2020
Prince De Makele Mounguembou, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, writes about the projected 224 percent increase in cobalt demand by 2030 and how leaders of the electric car revolution, such as Toyota and General Motors, must confront the human rights abuses in their supply chains. For Peace Research Institute Oslo: “Cobalt and the Congo: A Sustainable Green Energy Transition Cannot Be Built on Human Exploitation,” April 21, 2021
Jevans Nyabiage highlights the outsized role that China, which owns some of the largest cobalt mines and stands as the world’s biggest importer of cobalt, plays in the living conditions of Congolese residents in the South China Morning Post: “Cobalt Blues: Congolese Miners, and China’s Role in Improving Their Conditions,” July 17, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Troy Farah is an independent journalist who covers science, public health, climate, and more for multiple publications including Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, Vice, and others. He lives near Joshua Tree, California, with his wife and two dogs.