Perspective: Cobalt Valley’s dirty secret

The price of cobolt has nearly tripled in the past two years because of the rising demand for 'clean' energy.

Look at the phone in your hand or the computer in front of you.

These objects are so common place that you cannot imagine life without them.

If you are like most people, then you are probably dreaming about your next upgrade.

If you are like me, then it probably never even crossed your mind that your trendy touchscreen might be tainted by the blood and sweat of children as young as six.

These seemingly innocuous objects contain a substance that keeps men, women and children locked in a cycle of slavery for R26 a day in the copper belt of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than half the world’s cobalt comes from.

Cobalt is more than the name of a colour, it is a valuable metal used to create lithium-ion rechargeable batteries for high-tech products to power everything from iPhones to electric cars.

It is also used to make superalloys for jet engines, gas turbines and magnetic steel. The price of cobolt has nearly tripled in the past two years because of the rising demand for ‘clean’ energy.

The Mail & Guardian recently carried an article titled ‘Is your phone tainted by the misery of the 35 000 children in Congo’s mines?’ by Siddharth Kara, from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, about her research trip to the DRC.

In her article she highlights an Amnesty International report that the DRC government estimates at least 20% of the cobalt coming out of the Congo is mined by locals, called creuseurs, who work all day digging out enough cobalt-containing heterogenite stone to fill one sack.

Chinese traders pay as little as $0.65 (R9.50) for the sackful.

Kara writes:

“I documented the horrors at 31 artisanal mining sites in the south-eastern provinces, including several previously undocumented sites in remote mountains near the Zambian border. Based on the data I gathered, I estimate there are more than 255 000 creuseurs mining cobalt in DRC, at least 35 000 of whom are children, some as young as six.”

Once mined the Chinese do some preliminary refining to produce crude cobalt hydroxide.

If the Congo seems a far off place to be concerned about, know that the Chinese drive the raw material down to ports at Dar es Salaam and our own Durban harbour for export to China.

After additional refining in China, the cobalt is sold to major manufacturers and consumer electronic companies across the world, after which these products are delivered to a store near you.

“Any company sourcing cobalt from DRC must establish an independent, third-party system of verification that all mineral supply chains are cleansed of exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labour.

“They must invest whatever is needed to ensure the decent pay, safe and dignified working conditions, healthcare, education and general well-being of the people whose cheap labour they rely on,” writes Kara.

Sadly Amnesty International reported at the end of 2017 that none of these companies, the ones that ultimately sell us our high-end tech products, are making sufficient efforts to ensure that the cobalt they purchase is not tainted by human suffering.

So that leaves us, the consumer, to put pressure on them to do the right thing.

We have to become more discerning shoppers and to the best of our ability ensure our electronics are ‘cruelty free’ because the likes of Silicon Valley don’t care until it puts pressure on the bottom line.

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  AUTHOR
Lesley Naudé
News Editor

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