Digging Deeper

After cobalt was discovered beneath one neighborhood, Congolese began digging under their houses. Some tunnels extended into neighbors’ properties. Illustration by Pola Maneli

Nicolas Niarchos appeared in our pages in 2017 with two short form and inherently pleasant stories. Now he is in full force with a longform account of the impacts new technologies are having on the ground, or rather in the ground, in one of Africa’s more fragile countries:

The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush

Cell phones and electric cars rely on the mineral, causing a boom in demand. Locals are hunting for this buried treasure—but are getting almost none of the profit.

In June, 2014, a man began digging into the soft red earth in the back yard of his house, on the outskirts of Kolwezi, a city in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the man later told neighbors, he had intended to create a pit for a new toilet. About eight feet into the soil, his shovel hit a slab of gray rock that was streaked with black and punctuated with what looked like blobs of bright-turquoise mold. He had struck a seam of heterogenite, an ore that can be refined into cobalt, one of the elements used in lithium-ion batteries. Among other things, cobalt keeps the batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric cars, from catching fire. As global demand for lithium-ion batteries has grown, so has the price of cobalt. The man suspected that his discovery would make him wealthy—if he could get it out of the ground before others did.

Southern Congo sits atop an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, almost half the world’s known supply. In recent decades, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have moved to the formerly remote area. Kolwezi now has more than half a million residents. Many Congolese have taken jobs at industrial mines in the region; others have become “artisanal diggers,” or creuseurs. Some creuseurs secure permits to work freelance at officially licensed pits, but many more sneak onto the sites at night or dig their own holes and tunnels, risking cave-ins and other dangers in pursuit of buried treasure.

The man took some samples to one of the mineral traders who had established themselves around Kolwezi. At the time, the road into the city was lined with corrugated-iron shacks, known as comptoirs, where traders bought cobalt or copper, which is also plentiful in the region. (In the rainy season, the earth occasionally turns green, as a result of the copper oxides beneath it.) Many of the traders were Chinese, Lebanese, and Indian expats, though a few Congolese had used their mining profits to set up shops.

One trader told the man that the cobalt ore he’d dug up was unusually pure. The man returned to his district, Kasulo, determined to keep his find secret. Many of Kasulo’s ten thousand residents were day laborers; Murray Hitzman, a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist who spent more than a decade travelling to southern Congo to consult on mining projects there, told me that residents were “milling about all the time,” hoping for word of fresh discoveries.

Hitzman, who teaches at University College Dublin, explained that the rich deposits of cobalt and copper in the area started life around eight hundred million years ago, on the bed of a shallow ancient sea. Over time, the sedimentary rocks were buried beneath rolling hills, and salty fluid containing metals seeped into the earth, mineralizing the rocks. Today, he said, the mineral deposits are “higgledy-piggledy folded, broken upside down, back-asswards, every imaginable geometry—and predicting the location of the next buried deposit is almost impossible.”

The man stopped digging in his yard. Instead, he cut through the floor of his house, which he was renting, and dug to about thirty feet, carting out ore at night. Zanga Muteba, a baker who then lived in Kasulo, told me, “All of us, at that time, we knew nothing.” But one evening he and some neighbors heard telltale clanging noises coming from the man’s house. Rushing inside, they discovered that the man had carved out a series of underground galleries, following the vein of cobalt as it meandered under his neighbors’ houses. When the man’s landlord got wind of these modifications, they had an argument, and the man fled. “He had already made a lot of money,” Muteba told me. Judging from the amount of ore the man had dug out, he had probably made more than ten thousand dollars—in Congo, a small fortune. According to the World Bank, in 2018 three-quarters of the country’s population lived on less than two dollars a day.

Hundreds of people in Kasulo “began digging in their own plots,” Muteba said. The mayor warned, “You’re going to destroy the neighborhood!” But, Muteba said, “it was complicated for people to accept the mayor’s request.” Muteba had a thriving bakery and didn’t have time to dig, but most locals were desperate. In Congo, more than eighty-five per cent of people work informally, in precarious jobs that pay little, and the cost of living is remarkably high: because the country’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of dictatorship, civil war, and corruption, there is little agriculture, and food and other basic goods are often imported. For many Kasulo residents, the prospect of a personal cobalt mine was worth any risk.

About a month after the man who discovered the cobalt vanished, the local municipality formally restricted digging for minerals in Kasulo. According to Muteba, residents implored the mayor: “We used to mine in the bush, in the forest. You stopped us. You gave all the city to big industrial companies. Now we discovered minerals in our own plots of land, which belonged to our ancestors. And now you want to stop us? No, that is not going to work.” Muteba recalled, “People started to throw rocks at the mayor, and the mayor ran away. And, when the mayor fled, the digging really started.”…

Read the whole article here.

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