What is cobalt used for?
Cobalt is not just a pretty face; it is a particularly resilient metal. This makes it perfect for high-temperature, rough industrial use, including as a part of powerful magnets and jet turbines. Even under conditions that would break most other metals, it remains sturdy. It also has an important role in our absorption of Vitamin B12, and is even used to irradiate food for preservation purposes, and to treat vitamin deficiencies in animals, in very small doses. Cobalt’s main industrial use, because of its durability, is in lithium-ion batteries. Specifically, cobalt is used currently in the electrodes of the battery; the part that carries current into non-metallic parts of the battery. Basically, a big part of what makes a battery useful. Lithium-ion batteries, in turn, are found in pretty much any and all electronics you have in your home: mobile phones, laptops, tablets and more. Notably for the purposes of this story, however, lithium-ion batteries are needed for electric vehicles.
What does this have to do with the Congo?
The DRC has been dubbed “the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle age”. She holds almost two-thirds of the world’s cobalt. To give you an idea of just how much that is, the Southern Congo alone holds an estimated 3.4 million metric tonnes of it. As at 2019, the DRC produced 70% of the cobalt harvest worldwide, at 100,000 metric tonnes. But it isn’t just home to a lot of naturally-occurring cobalt; it is home to the biggest concentrated sources of cobalt on the planet. Cobalt is not exactly scarce; but it can be difficult to find it in quantities that justify the destructive process necessary for harvesting it.
What’s so destructive about mining the DRC’s cobalt?
Newspapers across the Western world – particularly the Washington Post – have reported the dramatic socioeconomic and environmental costs of external companies mining cobalt from the DRC. Both American and Chinese investors in particular have wreaked havoc in the country as they race against each other in the battle to dominate the field of renewable energy.
Little contribution to the local economy
The United States and China both have made use of the cobalt and copper deposits (both metals are often found together) in the DRC. However, neither power appears to have been of much use to the local economies around these deposits – making the environmental cost seem not worth it to many. For example, in the major cobalt and copper mine, Tenke Fungurume, around 95% of mine workers were Congolese under American employer Freeport-McMoRan in 2016 – but when Chinese supercorporation China Molybdenum took over in the same year, this proportion dropped by 15-20%. In a country with an unemployment rate of 10.3%, mining corporations may not spell good news for the Congolese people as time goes by. Whilst Western spotlights tend to shine on Chinese corporate giants such as China Molybdenum for their apparent lack of care for local Congolese economies affected by the mining – although definitely not without reason – the American employers now being muscled out of the DRC have not had a spotless record either. Under criminal investigation internationally, American mining company Glencore stands accused of cheating hundreds of millions in US dollars out of local Congolese authorities whilst involved in mineral trading and mining. Allegedly, some of these funds were funnelled right back to former DRC president Joseph Kabila in exchange for more lucrative mining deals. As owners of the world’s biggest cobalt mine, Glencore’s alleged corruption in the
DRC is particularly notable.
Human rights violations
Speaking of local employment, of those Congolese locals employed in mining cobalt deposits, over a sixth are children, some as young as six years old. The conditions in which these children work can be hazardous, spending up to 24 hours per shift underground with no protective gear, and sometimes earning as little as $2 for their labour. Even when not themselves working in the mines, children are still at risk of contracting serious pulmonary illnesses from other household members exposed to the pollution in the mines.
Perhaps bizarrely, it appears that little research has been done to investigate environmental impacts on cobalt mining the DRC. A team from MacQuarie University in Australia, however, has carried out an end-to-end study on the carbon footprint of cobalt extraction from copper and nickel deposits in Australia. This study found that the heavy use of fossil fuels during the extraction process left a sizeable carbon footprint – but without deposits comparable to those found in countries like the DRC, this may not be useful for understanding the environmental impact going forward. Without that information, it become difficult to predict whether investors and corporations being pushed to drive down emissions will continue to invest in the mass harvest of cobalt in the Congo.
What is the future for the DRC’s cobalt race?
The answer may well be: not much. The investment market for minerals is notoriously volatile, and is only growing more so by the day. With work on cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries being pushed by concerned charities, governments and NGOs – and work already well underway – the DRC and her
mines may simply find themselves discarded after this long, treacherous journey. We have already seen some particularly important Chinese companies and investors pull out of the country, and some investors are leaving because of the risks that human rights violations and political volatility present. All in all, more and more investors appear to be finding cobalt not worth the risk. However, there is optimism out there: UN campaigner and researcher, Lauren Armistead, believes that investors in the DRC’s cobalt can continue their harvest in a sustainable way – and that with due diligence, due profit can still follow.
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