Our reliance on cobalt is ruining lives

My book review in The Saturday Paper on the new book by Siddharth Kara, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives:

We’re all complicit. Anybody who uses a laptop, mobile phone, electric vehicle (EV) or tablet has purchased a product that contains cobalt, a rare-earth element. It’s largely unknown to the general public and yet 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt is mined annually in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest nations on the planet.

“Few nations are blessed with a more diverse abundance of resource riches than Congo,” writes Siddharth Kara, a senior fellow at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and an activist against modern slavery. “No other country in the world has been more severely exploited.”

Every so often a book comes along that completely challenges the way we live. This is a work of courageous reportage that reveals the secrets of a country that rarely enters our consciousness. Kara dismisses the denials of corporate giants such as Apple, Samsung, Tesla, Daimler and Glencore, all of which claim to have zero tolerance for child labour and commitments to supply-chain transparency. “Less has changed since colonial times than we might care to admit,” he says.

At great risk to his life, Kara travels to places in the DRC where very few outsiders have been. He brings readers the voices of people and communities toiling in subhuman conditions so we can tweet and drive cars that we tell ourselves are good for the environment. When he visits Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province, he explains that it’s “the new heart of darkness, a tormented heir to those Congolese atrocities that came before – colonisation, wars, and generations of slavery”.

The view here is apocalyptic, with villages and forests destroyed and massive mines dominating the landscape. It’s crowded with underpaid miners – including teenagers – who work in the toxic environment with no safety equipment such as gloves, closed shoes or masks.

Reform of this broken system is possible, but pressure must be applied on those most responsible. EV manufacturers are the main drivers of the explosion in the demand for cobalt and Kara urges consumers to push them “to treat the artisanal miners as equal employees to the people who work at corporate headquarters”. He supports the transition away from fossil fuels and the embrace of renewable energy. But should the people of the DRC suffer for our green dreams?

Pan Macmillan, 288pp, $49.99

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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