“The electric car is stained with Congo blood”

Congo's new nightmare is blue.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 10:31
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“The electric car is stained with Congo blood”

Congo's new nightmare is blue. Cobalt, a blue metal used in rechargeable lithium batteries, has changed the life of our technological devices: thanks to it, our cell phones, computers or electric cars charge sooner, run for longer and heat up less. The counterpart is hell for thousands of people in Congo. In Red Cobalt (Ed. Captain Swing), researcher Siddharth Kara (Knoxville, USA, 1974), uncovers the horror that connects our mobile phone with the depths of the Congolese mines.

You have researched child labor and slavery before, what led you to cobalt?

In 2016, some African colleagues alerted me that something bad was happening with cobalt mining in the Congo. At the time, I thought it was just a color used in paintings. I traveled to Congo in 2018 to conduct an academic study, but what I saw on that first trip, the suffering and degradation, was so severe that I felt the world needed to know about it. That's why I wrote this book.

What did you see?

I watched humanity's moral clock turn back two centuries to the time when the people of Africa were treated as subhuman savages by the global economic order. Suddenly there was another treasure desired by everyone in Congo and the world showed no concern for the dignity or well-being of the Congolese people. And the worst thing is that all of us cannot function even 24 hours without cobalt and three quarters of the world's supply comes from the Congo, which is mined in appalling, violent and degrading conditions.

Congo's history of suffering is extensive...

But never in the history of slavery has there been so much human degradation for those at the bottom, nor have so many gains been generated for those at the top. King Leopold's Congo was a horror, but that looting is a grain of sand compared to the money companies make and the number of lives affected. Does anyone in the Global North function without cobalt? Imagine the scale of it.

Tech companies say they have zero tolerance for abuse in their supply chain. It's true?

No, it's marketing, public relations. The truth is on the ground. And Red Cobalt is the first book to bring that truth to the world.

China dominates the Katanga region, the birthplace of cobalt.

15 years ago, long before the West was paying attention, Beijing saw that the future was rechargeable batteries. That is why they blocked the resources to make these batteries: lithium, nickel, manganese and in particular cobalt. They control more than 70% of mining production in the Congo, producing 80% of the world's supply of refined cobalt and 50% of the world's rechargeable batteries. China is the dominant force in cobalt and turns a blind eye to the human and environmental cost of its extraction.

Cobalt is key for the electric car, the banner of the green revolution.

Congo cobalt is tainted by human rights and environmental abuses. One of the most important green revolutions in the West, like the electric car, is based on terrible suffering. The green revolution of the electric car is dyed red with Congo blood. The transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy is built on hypocrisy. We are trying to save our environment and leave a greener planet for our children in exchange for destroying that of the children in the heart of Africa.

What's the price?

Millions of trees have been cut down to make way for mines. Congolese air, land or water have been contaminated with toxic emissions from processing facilities. And people suffer injuries, toxic exposure and death. I remember some parents who had lost a son in a tunnel collapse. Readers should take a moment and imagine this: When you plug in your phone, imagine that on the other end of that cable, there is a mother beating her chest in pain because her son was buried alive digging cobalt to earn a dollar or two a month. day. That's the price they pay to support our rechargeable lives.

What responsibility do we have as consumers?

If it were not for the enormous demand for cobalt, generated by consumers buying 1,000 euro smartphones and 100,000 euro electric vehicles, there would not be all this brutal cascade of violence.

What can those reading this interview do?

The first, spread awareness. Social change only happens when the world experiences horror. Perhaps leaders will soon be born to correct this injustice.

And the second?

We all need to think about our consumer habits. Do we have to upgrade our phones every year just because the camera has more megapixels? Every time you renew your phone you contribute to the lawsuit that crushes people in Congo.

Tech companies argue that it is impossible to control Congo's chaos.

It's an obscene excuse. Nobody has put a gun to their heads to make them use cobalt from the Congo. They are decisions they make to increase the useful life of their devices' batteries and sell more and more expensively. They have to accept responsibility for their supply chains or not use Congo cobalt.