Siddharth Kara spends much of his time each year lecturing to young men and women at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He also serves as a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. An attorney and author, Kara has specialized in human trafficking and slavery around the world. His latest efforts have focused on the mining of a particular mineral in central Africa, the demand for which is exploding worldwide.
Cobalt is an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. Around 74% of the cobalt on the planet lies in one small area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in south central Africa. When the demand for cobalt began to spike about a decade ago, it dramatically impacted “a small little patch of the Congo’s Southeastern Corner, a part that used to be called Katanga, and before anybody knew what was happening, the Chinese government and Chinese mining companies took control of almost all the big mines.” Since then, Kara says, “The local population has been displaced, is under duress, and they dig in absolutely sub-human gut-wrenching conditions for a dollar a day feeding Cobalt up the supply chain.”
After several research visits to the region, Kara now concludes that, “Never in human history has there been more suffering that generated more profit and was linked to the lives of more people around the world ever, ever in history than what’s happening in the Congo right now”
“What I have seen in the Congo,” he says, “is Hell on earth. There are children, caked in grime and filth, digging in pits and tunnels to excavate cobalt containing ore and that ore gets processed and refined and sent up into the formal supply chain to smart phone makers and [electric vehicle] manufacturers around the World.”
For all its value, cobalt is toxic to human eyes, skin, lungs, and heart muscle. Left untreated, it can lead to congestive heart failure and other health problems. Yet the workers in these pits have no safety protections such as masks and gloves. Most of them wear flip-flops on their feet.
In May 2021, the New Yorker published a story that revealed how “Children who work in the mines are often drugged, in order to suppress hunger. Sister Catherine Mutindi, the founder of Good Shepherd Kolwezi, a Catholic charity that tries to stop child labor, said, ‘If the kids don’t make enough money, they have no food for the whole day. Some children we interviewed did not remember the last time they had a meal.’”
At one of DRC’s largest mines, Kara recalled, “I walk into this place and this is what I see. There are more than 15,000 human beings crammed into that pit digging by hand and…you hear the mallets, you hear the shouting you hear the grunts. It’s a mass of humanity.”
Kara foresees an increase in the demand of Cobalt of 500% or more over the next ten or twenty years, “primarily being driven by adoption of electric vehicles. Each battery pack in an EV requires up to 10 kilograms of refined Cobalt. That’s a thousand times what’s required for a smartphone.” That demand will greatly inflate a harsh reality for the people of the DRC.
This crisis and its connection to “environmentally responsible” vehicles is nothing new. No serious policymaker can claim they are ignorant of the horrific conditions among cobalt mining operations in the DRC.
Amnesty International (2016) and the United Nation International Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have documented cobalt mining operations in the Congo. The UNICEF report estimated that 40,000 children work in the southern DRC cobalt mines.
In March 2018, a CBS news investigation confirmed the widespread use of children and the inhuman conditions in which they work. The 2021 New Yorker magazine brought the story to its 1.3 million subscribers. Sky news, among others, has posted video of the overcrowded, dangerous, and unhealthy conditions within which children mine. A 2019 lawsuit, filed against Apple and Google, among others, was closely covered by the UK newspaper, the Guardian and CBS news, while in 2018, CNN broadcast a special report titled “Dirty Energy.”
Knowing of this heart-wrenching plight among children in the Congo mines, and despite this human and environmental disaster unfolding in central Africa, Maine Governor Janet Mills announced that her state would be doubling down on its efforts to put more electric vehicles on the road.
In April 2021, Mills announced that she was accelerating her push for EVs, saying “Maine needs 219,000 light-duty EVs on the road by 2030 to meet its emissions targets.” Part of this plan included rebates for the purchase of electric vehicles. One month later, the New Yorker published its piece on the issue.
At the time of Mills’ announcement, there were 1,730 EVs registered in Maine. Efficiency Maine had issued 750 rebates in the 14 months or so the program had been in effect. At this rate Maine could achieve the original 41,000 EV target in 55 years. The new target of 219,000 vehicles has no realistic path to achievability.
The problem, other than high costs, is that people just don’t want them. In 2016, its peak sales year, Chevrolet sold just 25,000 of its battery-driven Volt nationwide. That same year, by comparison, Ford sold more than 820,000 of its F150 pickup. Chevy has since stopped making the Volt due to poor sales.
In addition to the enormous purchase cost of even an average electric vehicle in a state whose citizens rank among the nation’s poorest, there is the very real human cost, measured by the lives of the people of the Congo, particularly its children.
Despite this, Mills continues to push for more of these vehicles, dependent on the cobalt derived from horrific mining practices. In doing so, she should be made to answer why the climate goals of a state with nearly zero net CO2 emissions should ignore the tens of thousands of children in the Congo, already the victims of extreme poverty and now subject to the heart-wrenching conditions of cobalt mining.
A brief discussion on this subject with Siddharth Kara can be seen on the latest podcast with Joe Rogan from December 22. His book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, is due out next month.