Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives
By Siddharth Kara
St. Martin’s, 288 pages, $29.99
At the beginning of the 20th century, the territory then known as the Congo Free State was emblematic of the depredations of global capitalism and European empire. The invention of the pneumatic tire created booming markets for bicycles and later automobiles. The insatiable demand for rubber that followed made the dense rainforests of the Congo, rich in this resource, ripe for plunder. In the European powers’ “scramble for Africa,” it was the king of Belgium, Leopold II, who took this prize and made the territory his private fiefdom.
Under Leopold’s brutal rule, Congolese natives were forced to harvest rubber or face death. Women were taken hostage, and men were ordered to gather a monthly quota. As prices rose along with demand, quotas increased. Those who failed to meet these targets were taken away and shot, often in groups to save ammunition. According to the historian Adam Hochschild, between 1880 and 1920, around 10 million Congolese lost their lives, roughly half the population. In the pantheon of mass murderers, Leopold ranks alongside Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
The horror in the Congo only ended when international outrage—due in part to Joseph Conrad’s documentation of Leopold’s bloodthirsty reign in Heart of Darkness—compelled Belgium to act. After 1908, the “free state” was annexed by Belgium, and became known as the Belgian Congo. But a new book, Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red, makes clear that we have not left the atrocities of Leopold’s era behind. Kara shows that the Congo has become a “new heart of darkness”: a site of horrifying exploitation that fuels the global economy at an immense human cost.
The brutalization of Congolese rubber harvesters helped make the automobile era possible. The primary force responsible for the exploitation of the same region today is the frenzied push for “clean” and “green” sources of fuel and transportation. We are often told that this green transition means abandoning the “extractivist” paradigm of the fossil fuel industry. This is a misleading framing, because the transition to “clean” energy requires an unprecedented extraction of rare minerals from the earth.
One such mineral is cobalt. You may not have heard of this bluish-gray substance, but it is used to power everything from laptops to smartphones. Moreover, it is of particular importance for electric vehicles, as it’s used to power lithium-ion batteries. It’s what gives EVs their range. The implementation of “net-zero” climate targets has meant the internal combustion engine is being forced off the road by government mandate. EVs are in high demand to meet the needs of this socially engineered environmental utopia. And with roughly 10 kilograms of cobalt in your average EV battery, securing a source of this precious mineral has become crucially important.
Seventy percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And with global demand estimated to jump 585 percent by 2050, Kara sets out to investigate the continuities of this ballooning industry with the rubber industry that preceded it. One of the central themes of Cobalt Red is the extensive use of child labor in the supply chain. Kara isn’t the first to investigate this disturbing reality. In 2016, Amnesty International released a report cataloging severe human-rights abuses and child labor in the DRC’s mining industry. According to the report, around 40,000 children work in the cobalt mines of the DRC.
Kara has written extensively on modern slavery. Slavery, he writes, “is far and away more profitable now than at any point in human history.” The takeaway of Cobalt Red is that much of the cobalt industry is made possible by forced labor—and hence, so are many of the conveniences we take for granted. The result is that despite possessing such a valuable resource, more than three-quarters of Congo’s population lives in poverty. “Never have people of the Congo benefitted from the mines of Congo,” a community leader tells Kara. “We only become poorer.”
Research for Cobalt Red began in 2018 when Kara visited Congo’s mining provinces. Here he clambered around dangerous sites and negotiated with armed guards and local militias who protected them. He was struck by the size of the Shabara mine. “More than 15,000 men and teenage boys were hammering, shoveling, and shouting inside the crater with scarcely room to move or breathe,” writes Kara. Cobalt dust is toxic. It destroys your clothes and gets into your lungs, and most cobalt miners have little protective gear beyond an old cloth tied across the face, Kara interviews a number of miners left permanently disabled by accidents. In one harrowing scene, he describes witnessing a young boy being pulled out of a recently collapsed mining tunnel; the boy’s death was one of 63 fatalities from that incident.
Two-thirds of the DRC’s supply of cobalt is said to be excavated with heavy machinery in industrial mines. The rest is dug up by artisanal miners, who find better-quality cobalt deposits close to the surface. As it’s easier to extract, locals use simple, handmade tools and sift through detritus. Miners are kept in line by guards wielding AK-47s, and bribery circumvents any semblance of regulation. Hovering around the sites are traders who buy artisanal cobalt and trade the mineral at depots. These depots, also known as buying houses, are small shacks that advertise with brightly decorated signs and names, such as “$1,000,000 Depot” to attract traders. They offer traders a fixed price per sack, while the miner receives just a few dollars a day. These depots are supposed to be run by Congolese, but Kara discovered that most are owned and operated by Chinese entities. The depots sell artisanal cobalt to the large processing factories, where it is mixed with industrially mined cobalt. “There is no such thing as clean cobalt,” writes Kara. In his words, cobalt is a “conflict mineral.”
Amid growing criticism, many of the biggest names in tech and EV manufacturing have joined initiatives tasked with eradicating forced child labor. One of the biggest is the Global Battery Alliance. More than 120 companies, including Tesla, Volkswagen, and BMW, are signatories to the GBA. To provide transparency within the supply chain, GBA has developed a “Cobalt Action Partnership,” through a system of on-the-ground monitoring and independent assessment. During his time in the Congo, Kara saw no evidence of these initiatives at work, nor anything that resembled corporate responsibility.
One of the main reasons child labor exists is because multinational corporations demand low-wage workers. This “race to the bottom” is the driving force behind neoliberal economics. With global sales of EVs, excluding hybrids, expected to soar to 66 million by 2040, from 3.3 million in 2021, the profit motive will always override moral concerns.
Cobalt Red is a beautifully written exposé of the new extraction economy. This meticulously researched book exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of environmental activism that promotes “clean” energy in wilful ignorance of the human costs of the transition it promotes. It is also a heartbreaking story chronicling the suffering endured by some of the world’s poorest people for the sake of Western comfort. People are dying in hand-dug tunnels so that we can recharge our smartphones and EVs.
While eye-opening and informative, Kara offers little in the way of meaningful solutions. A vast majority of Cobalt Red is dedicated to exposing the horrendous conditions faced by DRC’s children. Yet reform proposals are few and far between. If we are to help the DRC transition away from using child labor in the supply chain, immediate reform is essential. To avoid corruption, an independent intervention force is required to train law enforcement and officials. Also needed is a specialized task force to find and liberate those stuck in the child-labor market. Plus, stricter punishment for those who employ children in the mines, with the threat of imprisonment for anyone who fails to comply with stronger working conditions.
Locating ethically sourced cobalt beyond the Congo is an unlikely solution at the moment. Australia and Morocco hold roughly 3 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves, nowhere near enough to meet demand. For the moment, the DRC has a near monopoly on the mineral. If we want to transition toward cleaner energy while continuing to enjoy the conveniences of modern technology, confronting the atrocities documented by Kara must be a moral priority.