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Congo and Cobalt; When Technology Trumps Human Rights

Computers, smartphones and vapes – they all have one thing in common: cobalt. Section Editor Sophie Poredos addresses the severe breach of human rights in Congo with the mining of cobalt and its link to colonialism. 

There’s a high possibility that you could be reading this article somewhere on campus, waiting for your next class. Perhaps you’re even reading it on your phone or computer, snuggled up in your bed. Whether it's a fancy printer or an electronic device, there’s a priceless resource needed to materialise this magazine into your very hands; cobalt ore. 

Cobalt is the holy grail for all electronic devices, especially in its crucial role in developing lithium-ion batteries. If you’re operating an electric vehicle and have aspirations for a Tesla, despite the god-awful drivers I’ve witnessed, lithium-ion batteries are necessary for the global switch to renewable energy sources as they have stable temperatures and can be continuously recharged. Within these batteries, lithium ions flow in a ‘cathode’, which is where the cobalt ore is utilised [1]. As a result of cobalts revolutionary use in technology, its international demand is ‘predicted to grow fourfold by 2030’ according to the World Economic Forum [2]. 

The dark side of cobalt and lithium-ion batteries? The severe violation of human rights, including the exploitation of children and slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whilst more than 70 percent of cobalt is sourced from mines in the Congo [2], a significant proportion includes freelance workers, known as ‘creuseurs’ who operate in artisanal mines [3] and are subjected to ‘degrading’ conditions, according to Harvard expert Siddarth Kara. [3] More cobalt is found in South Congo’s Kolwezi than anywhere else, resulting in entire families sitting through dangerous mines for awful pay. [1] 

Amnesty International details some of the alleged human rights abuses in Kolwezi, including forced evictions with no compensation and reported sexual assault cases by the military forces patrolling the mines. However, this ‘systemic issue’ as quoted by Amnesty, is also impacting the health and wellbeing of Congolese children, with over 40,000 minors scouring to find cobalt reserves. [5]

But, it’s not just the ethical dilemma of cobalt that needs to be scrutinised, it's the environmental impact on local communities that has to be acknowledged. Local water and land have severe contamination including the release of by-products such as uranium and radon gas, both of which can cause lung diseases with long-term exposure. [4] 

However, this issue isn’t subject to the Congo Republic alone. The United States also mines a sizable amount of cobalt and is encroaching on Indigenous land. This enshrines how the mining for cobalt is a colonial issue; with the blood of the Indigenous people, the price to pay for our precious technology. 

It is important to note that cobalt isn’t just linked to electronic devices alone; cheap fashion jewellery, makeup, and paint can contain trace amounts with minimal research done on the effects of cobalt exposure on our health. [6]

The solution? As a university student, your life revolves around technology, from computers, vapes, mobile phones, and renewable energy sources. However, this seemingly impossible issue to tackle already has companies such as Apple refusing to supply their products from the Congo. Companies such as Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla haven't followed suit yet and as a consumer, your dollar has political weight. [7] Alternatives are already being researched for cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries, with strong contenders of nickel and manganese, whose increase in ion cathodes maintains similar benefits to cobalt [8]. 

Technology powers everything in our lives; our messages to loved ones, late essay nights, and online shopping. As an informed consumer, bin the vape responsibly, reuse your old devices, and recycle your mobile phones for the inadvertent blood spilt from cobalt. And for god’s sake, don’t buy a Tesla, despite its ties with the exploitation of children, because you’ll need a driving lesson along with it. 

[1] Delbert, C. The Dark Truth About the Cobalt Powering Your Smartphone, 27th December, 2023. 

[2] Norton, C. Cobalt powers our lives. What is it-and why is it so controversial?, 21st December 2023. 

[3] Niarchos, N. The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush, 24th May 2021. 

[4] Lawson, M. The DRC Mining Industry: Child Labor and Formalization of Small-Scale Mining, 1st September 2021.

[5] Frontières, S. Democratic Republic of the Congo: Industrial mining of cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries is leading to grievous human rights abuses, 12 September 2023. 

[6] Source Intelligence, Products that Surpingsly Contain Cobalt, 26 August 2019. 

[7] Kelly, A. Apple and Google named in US lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths, 16th December 2019.

[8] Lee, S. Manthiram, A. Can Cobalt be Eliminated from Lithium-Ion Batteries?, 22nd August 2022. 


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