Congo, Cobalt, Microsoft

The people of Democratic Republic of Congo (D R Congo) have no respite from being haunted by continuing ethnic strife, malnutrition, conspiracy of multinationals—it is more like a failed state. The international community does hardly bother about the agony the people of Democratic Republic of Congo face day in and out. How child labour and children with AK-47, not books, is ruining this nation is simply bone-chilling. An all pervasive poverty is the root cause of such a horrible situation.

Though the war ended stablising much of D R Congo, interference in the mineral rich eastern region has continued, and conflict is on the rise again. Since 2016, the number of militias in North Kivu has increased from 80 to 120. They constantly change sides, splinter and ally with each other. The region is rich in gold, diamonds and coltan—an ore needed to make capacitors for mobile phones and laptops. It also produces some of the world's best coffee and quinine for Fever-Tree Tonic Water.

Every group, ethnicity tribe has its own militia and some are manipulated by politicians wanting more power. Some militias are backed by political figures in neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. Wave after wave of militia attacks have left 1.7 million people displaced in North Kivu, some for a third or fourth time. In D R Congo as a whole, 6 million are displaced, the highest number in Africa. 13 million are in desperate need of foreign aid, according to the latest UN statistics, almost double the number in 2017 and second only to Yemen. Children carry distended stomachs, denoting malnutrition. The region is suffering the second biggest outbreak of ebola on record, with more than 500 killed by the disease. Ebola centres run by Medecins Sans Frontieres have been attacked and burnt down, sending highly contagious patients back into the community. Kidnappings and rape are so common that women are scared to go to the fields to farm, even though their families are on the verge of starvation. In North Kivu it is the women who sow, reap and bend double, under back-breaking loads. The militias demand huge ransoms. The recent increase in kidnaps are reprisals for voting for Martin Fayulu, the opposition leader widely believed to have been defrauded for victory, in the presidential election, at the end of December 2018.

In truth Cobalt is the new source of horror and tragedy in Congo. Legal mining apart, illegal mining too has created hell holes across the country. They are called hell tunnels where cobalt veins are located and children are deployed to mine this precious mineral.

Cobalt is critical to the batteries of iPhones and electric cars. About 70% of the world's supply of Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt places in the world. Much of its Cobalt comes from around Kolwezi town. An estimated 125 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030, about 40 times more than at present. In the shadow of shafts dug by huge multi-nationals, such as Glenore, in what appears like a human anthill, the artisinal mines account for 20% of production. Child labour is common and safety standards are non-existent. In the districts, beneath every house is a warren of tunnels, and holes, covered with sheets of orange tarpaulin, as hundreds of men and women dig into the red mud and children scurry about, bringing yellow jerrycans of water. There are holes even beside churches, where gospel choirs are sung. Known as crevsers, or diggers, the miners use no equipment more sophisticated than spades, shovels and plastic head torches as they burrow into the ground, looking for the tell-tale blue veins of Cobalt. Those who strike lucky fill sacks with the metallic grey sludge. The condition of the mines are terrible. Any time a tunnel can collapse, but the miners keep going. Accidents are often kept secret. The miners know the government and other partners may use it as an excuse to close the artisan mines and take over the land. Many of the diggers are hostile to outsiders. It is common for children as young as nine to work in the mines. Exposure to Cobalt can cause long term health problems such as asthma, hard metal lung disease, dermatitis and decreased pulmonary function. Mining accidents are common. The Chinese Cobalt depots in Kolwezi mostly sell the Cobalt ore to a subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company that is one of the world's largest manufacturers of Cobalt products. After smelting in Congo, Cobalt is exported and sold to battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. These companies sell to battery manufacturers, which then sell to corporations such as Apple, Dell and Microsoft.

Vol. 51, No. 42, Apr 21 - 27, 2019