MINING COBALT: CHILD EXPLOITATION IN THE RESOURCE-RICH DRC – NIRVALY MOOLOO

Image: Thomas Ashlock (Unsplash)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a resource-rich country where almost every valuable natural resource can be found. These resources range from gold, diamonds, copper, cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan to cobalt. Similar to many African countries being wealthy in resources, this resource is more a curse than it is a blessing because this vast natural wealth has brought nothing but suffering to the Congolese people. Natural wealth has failed to deliver economic benefits and has instead resulted in human rights abuses- especially those of minors living in the DRC. The mining of cobalt in the DRC has resulted in many risking their lives, mainly due to the poor governance and poverty present in the country. 

Most of the cobalt found in the world is mined in Africa and most of it is sourced from the DRC. Cobalt, as a natural resource, has been used for thousands of years. In ancient times, cobalt has been used for jewellery and paints. It has also been found in Chinese artefacts which date back to both the Tang and Ming Dynasty. The term cobalt is derived from the German word, Kobold, which means Goblin. This term is argued to come from superstitious miners who were afraid of the mineral and its creation of deadly fumes. Despite being used centuries ago, its discovery has been credited to a Swedish chemist, George Brandt, who made its discovery in 1975. The cobalt industry has dramatically shifted from the 16thcentury up until the 20thcentury, when large cobalt deposits were discovered in the Congo, 1914. Today, cobalt is an important raw material used to make batteries for smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-cars. 

The DRC has a copper belt that yields an estimate of 60 percent of the global mining supply of cobalt since 2012.  Studies have revealed that the DRC contained nearly half of the known total cobalt reserves globally. Natural resources in the DRC generate at least 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, with cobalt accounting for a third of these earnings. Moreover, these natural endowments account for nearly a third of government revenue. While these figures suggest that the country plays a significant role as a major contributor to the global output of cobalt, ironically, the country remains one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2018, the country ranked 176th out of 189 countries on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index, indicating to us that despite being a resource-rich country, the country’s development in the context of social and economic dimensions has been moderately poor.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, published in 2019, revealed that the DRC’s experience with natural resources to date is an epitome of the natural resource curse thesis presented by many. The thesis emphasizes that countries that have an immense supply of non-renewable natural resources tend to experience worse development outcomes than those that are generally resource-poor. This tendency pinpoints to various problems within the country, namely corruption in the management of resources, a lack in technical capacity to manage natural resources and exploitation by multinationals. In addition to several other problems that have not been listed above, the DRC has experienced these issues which have resulted in the impoverishment of the country, thus exposing many of its civilians to exploitation and displacement, especially in areas where cobalt mining takes place. 

Located in the Kasulu and Kamilombe districts of the DRC, are Artisanal Smaller-Scale Mines (ASM) where approximately 15-30 percent of the country’s total cobalt is sourced. It is in these mines where most of child exploitation takes place, thus furthering the argument brought forth that child labour in the DRC is more prevalent than expected. As many as 35 000 of the DRC’s 255 000 cobalt miners are children who are not only exposed to hazardous working conditions but are also forced into this form of labour. The prominence of child labour in the DRC is as a result of a country weakened by violent ethnic conflict and high levels of corruption. As such, these make-shift mines have become the lifeline for many living in extreme poverty.

It is most important to note that hazardous working conditions are not the only extremes that children are exposed to. In addition to being physically abused, thousands of children working in cobalt mines are also exposed to sexual violation, where many are raped and sexually harassed. Moreover, many have been killed from working in these extreme conditions, with little being done on the part of these companies being supplied with cobalt sourced from these mines. 

A report by Amnesty International revealed that most of the cobalt sourced from the DRC is used to power multibillion-dollar tech companies such as Apple, Samsung, Tesla and Microsoft. While these tech companies claimed to have no knowledge of any child labour, one of the central allegations filed in a lawsuit against these companies, is that they all had knowledge that the cobalt used in their products is linked to the exploitation faced by many children. Children who are forced to work in hazardous conditions, thus making them complicit in the exploitation taking place in the DRC. In the face of these serious allegations being made, all tech companies involved have reiterated and expressed that they are all committed to the responsible sourcing of the materials that go into their products and that they uphold the human rights of workers at any level of their global supply chains. 

Despite showing solidarity for upholding the human rights of all and condemning any form of illegal and exploitative child labour, the mining of cobalt in the DRC continues to rob many children of their innocent lives. With the global demand for cobalt increasing, it is the responsibility of multinational companies to ensure transparency with their suppliers and fully condemn any child labour, and labour abuses taking place along their global supply chains.  Moreover, while measures have been taken to redress this, no robust attempts have been made. Therefore, taking that into consideration, responsibility does not only lie with these tech companies. It is also the responsibility of civil society to fully engage in the condemnation of these human right violations because many children, barely 10 years old, are responsible for the powered smartphones most of us have today. 

Nirvaly Mooloo is a final-year student at the University of Pretoria. She is an activist and feminist at heart. Her interests strongly lie in academic fields specialising in Politics and International Relations. Her dream is to one day be the leader that brings change to the livelihoods of others. Nirvaly is one of permanent members of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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