Jocelyn C. Zuckerman leads a conversation below that puts our electric future in a very particular context:
For Your Phone and EV, a Cobalt Supply Chain to a Hell on Earth
The race for high-tech metals has sparked a cobalt boom in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has come at a steep human cost. In an e360 interview, author Siddharth Kara talks about the horrific conditions in the mines that are putting thousands of workers at risk.
As countries around the world look to pivot quickly to clean energy, demand for the lithium-ion batteries used to charge our smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles is booming. But as author and contemporary-slavery expert Siddharth Kara says in an interview with Yale Environment 360, those rechargeable batteries require cobalt to function, and 75 percent of the world’s supply of that mineral is mined from the rich earth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
To report his latest book, Cobalt Red, Kara traveled into militia-controlled mining areas of that troubled nation, where five-year-old children wielding crude shovels and scraps of rebar represent the bottom of a global supply chain that ends on the factory floors of some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. Kara provides firsthand testimony from dozens of Congolese caught up in the race to harvest cobalt — a frenzy that has resulted not just in illness and untold deaths, but in the wholesale contamination of the region’s water, soil, and air.
A fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the author of three previous books on modern-day slavery and sex trafficking, Kara documents how the Congolese government, Chinese tech companies, and every one of us have become unwitting participants in what can only be characterized as a humanitarian crime. “Environmental destruction, human destruction, labor exploitation, public-health catastrophe,” he says. “The list of violence goes on and on.”
Yale Environment 360: How did you come to focus on this topic?
Siddharth Kara: I started hearing from colleagues in the field around 2016 that there were issues with how cobalt was being mined in the Congo. I had no idea at that time about this metal and how it related to rechargeable batteries. I made a first trip in 2018, and I was expecting to see some pretty miserable conditions, but the scale of it, the severity of what was happening, the enormity of the violence against the people and environment there — it really shocked me. So I redirected all my efforts toward trying to research what was happening and raise awareness.
e360: You talk about “industrial” mines and “artisanal” mines. What does that latter word mean?
Kara: The term is just nonsensical in its inaccuracy. It makes you think of craftsmen or people baking bread or something. In fact, it’s grindingly poor people scraping and scrounging in pits and trenches with pickaxes, shovels, their bare hands, strips of rebar, in tattered rags as they gather up cobalt-bearing ore, stones, and pebbles into sacks. And that’s called artisanal mining, meaning people with their hands as opposed to heavy equipment…
Read the whole conversation here.
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