"In Congo’s Cobalt Mines" by Nicolas Niarchos (#NYRB)



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Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddharth Kara St. Martin’s, 274 pp., $29.99 

Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Addressing Root Causes of Human Rights Abuses a report by Dorothée Baumann-Pauly NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights/Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights, 13 pp.

Conflict Minerals Inc.: War, Profit and White Saviourism in Eastern Congo by Christoph N. Vogel Oxford University Press, 224 pp., $30.00 (paper) 

Eating the Congo: Unveiling State Governance of Copper and Cobalt Mining in Former Katanga by Claude Iguma Wakenge Lambert Academic Publishing, 158 pp., $79.00 (paper)

The Eyes of the World: Mining the Digital Age in the Eastern DR Congo by James H. Smith University of Chicago Press, 354 pp., $95.00; $30.00 (paper)


Mining sustains the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of the world’s poorest nations. In 2019 taxes on mining companies accounted for 46 percent of government revenue. Copper and cobalt, two of Congo’s most important minerals, are in great demand. Copper is used in electric wiring, and cobalt is used in the positive electrode, or cathode, of lithium-ion batteries, which power most mobile devices and many electric vehicles. (The latter may contain up to three and a half times as much copper as a gas engine vehicle.) Kinshasa stands to benefit from this demand, as do mine owners and the international traders who sell minerals to factories that turn them into components for electronics.

Yet ordinary Congolese see few of the profits from mining. Corruption and unscrupulous extraction practices contribute to what economists call the “resource curse” and to a seemingly endless cycle of penury. Some of the first plunderers of Congo were Belgian colonialists, who in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries stripped the country of its wealth and killed millions. After independence in 1960, the strongman Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (who would later rechristen himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga) funneled the state’s mining revenue into accounts that he controlled. Since the fall of Mobutu in 1997, Congo has been racked by conflict, and its sclerotic centralized government has failed to diversify the economy to insulate it from price fluctuations. The state apparatus continues to focus on extractive industries, which venal politicians can easily steal from. The recent leak of 3.5 million documents known as Congo Hold-Up showed how former president Joseph Kabila used the commercial BGFIBank to siphon public funds from the sale of natural resources into private accounts.

Government officials get kickbacks from local and foreign fixers who collect money from sales of mining rights and natural resource assets. (The most famous such fixer is the Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, who negotiated the purchase of several mines by European and Central Asian businesses. Gertler denies paying bribes but remains under US sanctions.) Graft can be paid at all steps along the way: when bids on projects are received, when mines are sold, and—a recent specialty—when the contracts governing those assets are reviewed by government commissions. Next to nothing comes back to the local population, and political actors who get rich from corrupt dealings have no incentive to change the status quo. But what to do about it?

Aparticularly revealing moment concerning the difficulty of addressing this question came in 2019 at the DRC Mining Week, a conference held every June at which Westerners hope to get licenses to mine and Congolese fat cats hope to get those Westerners’ money. That year’s conference was held in Lubumbashi, the de facto capital of Congo’s copper- and cobalt-rich south. At one symposium, the British and Dutch ambassadors argued that the DRC ought to clean up its mining sector. Artisanal mining, as small-scale mining in Africa is known, often involves child labor, exposure to poisonous chemicals, and wage slavery—this part of the business is in particular need of change. The most powerful firms in the mining sphere and in the manufacture of battery components, as well as many of the major buyers of artisanally mined cobalt, are Chinese. Western businesses buy cobalt that has already been processed in China, and so they are further implicated in the supply chain—including the terrible conditions at artisanal mines.

Europe, of course, has its own interests. Both Britain and the Netherlands were only just waking up to the possibility that an increasingly powerful China might raise the prices of processed materials or even restrict their sale outright in an attempt to promote its own automobile and electronics industries. And those industries are booming—in June Politico reported that Chinese firms could make 9 to 18 percent of sales in the European car market by 2025, compared to around 3.5 percent in 2022. (The US appeared to become aware of the threat of Chinese mineral dominance only a year or so into the Biden administration: Congo is now a priority for officials at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources.)

After the talk, a young Congolese woman stood up and addressed the foreigners in the room. She identified herself as a member of Touche pas à mon cobalt (Don’t Touch My Cobalt), a pressure group aligned with Richard Muyej Mangez Mans, who at the time was governor of the mineral-rich Lualaba Province. Why, she asked, were outsiders interfering with the DRC’s sovereign natural resources?

The leader of the group, a journalist and provocateur named Franck Fwamba, also jumped up to raise a point. “Why don’t we make a cartel?” Fwamba said to applause. “Look at OPEC, they have less than 50 percent of the global petroleum market and they can fix the price of petrol. We have just as much cobalt as OPEC has petrol—why don’t we fix prices?” Governor Muyej used to call his province “the Saudi Arabia of Cobalt,” and the comparison is apt, if a little ungenerous: Saudi Arabia produced 13 percent of the world’s oil in 2022, while almost 70 percent of last year’s global cobalt output was mined in Congo. Fwamba pointed out that Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire had recently agreed to extra tariffs on cocoa exports to improve the lives of farmers.

The British ambassador, John Murton, replied to Fwamba, noting that he used to work in Japan, where hydrogen fuel cell technologies were envisaged as the future of green power. “The technology changed” with lithium-ion batteries, Murton said, and it might do so again if cobalt became too scarce or expensive. “To ensure that the DRC can take advantage of the immense resources in this country, it’s important to construct relationships with consuming countries that are productive and not confrontational,” he continued. “Because if not, we can be sure that consuming countries will look for new technologies.”

Therein lies the rub. At industrial mines, which account for anywhere between 70 and 85 percent of the cobalt produced in Congo, the ore is mined using modern, mechanized methods, but the conditions at artisanal mines are immensely dangerous and toxic, and they need to be improved. Some miners descend into unstable tunnels up to three hundred feet deep, using rudimentary tools fashioned from metal pipes to chip minerals from the ore body. Basic items like shoes are scarce, not to speak of safety equipment. After the ore is carted to the surface, it is washed by women and children in streams and ponds where toxic quantities of minerals blister their exposed skin. Artisanal mines have disproportionately high rates of sexual assault against women, and toxic dust can increase the chances of stillbirths and fetal abnormalities. Cave-ins of poorly constructed tunnels have killed an untold number of workers.

Yet anyone who attempts to improve conditions and wages at artisanal mines must face the fact that workers can’t afford to lose what little they have. When copper and cobalt prices drop on the world market because of stockpiling and shifts in demand, subsistence miners, who have few options for other forms of employment, struggle to feed their families and send their children to school. In 2019 I visited the Shabara copper and cobalt pit, 160 miles from Lubumbashi. Workers there complained that the prices for cobalt were so low that they barely sold cobalt ore anymore and were focusing on copper. The prices were written on sacks nailed to the side of a makeshift depot where miners would unload bags full of rocks. A 160-pound sack of the highest grade of copper ore would sell for $195, and cobalt for around $160, but the profits from each bag would be split among groups of around a half-dozen miners, and such quality of ore was rare.

“Generally there is a weak grade of minerals here,” Aigle Mujinga, the foreman of the collective that mined the site, told me. He bemoaned the lack of “good sites” for artisanal miners to work on. Miners earned a few dollars a day if they were lucky. Their refrain is the same as that of people all over Congo, stuck in cycles of poverty and corruption from which they cannot see an exit: “We suffer.”

Two notable works on small-scale mining in the DRC have recently been published: Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham in the UK and an activist against modern slavery, and Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Addressing Root Causes of Human Rights Abuses by Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, a professor at the University of Geneva. (I am also currently writing a book on the battery mineral supply chain.) Baumann-Pauly’s audience is likely to be more academic, though there is much in her report to interest lay readers who care about where the minerals in their smartphones or electric vehicles come from. The publication of Cobalt Red, on the other hand, was accompanied by an interview on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast in which Kara laid out the horrors of artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC. The book exploded onto the best seller list.

Cobalt Red is commanding, filled with charged descriptions of the frankly depraved conditions at some of the mines. It is written simply, in a sort of part-journalistic, part-activist first person that urges the reader to face the “blood-for-cobalt economy” of artisanal mines in Congo’s south. “The scale of destruction is enormous, and the magnitude of suffering is incalculable,” Kara writes. The book is a litany of terrors, both acute and chronic: he recounts stories of a child killed while mining in a tunnel collapse, child miners bound in quasi-slavery, and what he describes as “extreme predation for profit.” He is shocked to find miners at one site wearing “just shorts, trousers, flip-flops, and maybe some shirts.” He shows how artisanal miners are paid a pittance and criticizes the widespread corruption he is told about in Congo. “Every possible claw was clutching at the value being created by the artisanal miners,” he writes.

Kara went on several trips to Congo, occasionally disguising himself as an Indian buyer of cobalt. (Along with the Chinese, Lebanese and Indian traders are important brokers in the Congolese mineral trade.) He admits early in the book that he had formed “well-reasoned plans” for going about his research, but that “few plans survive first contact with the Congo.” At a mine near Kambove, a man Kara took to be a militia fighter began shooting in the air and kicked him off the mine. (It’s unclear which militia the man was supposedly affiliated with—according to everyone I’ve interviewed in Congo, militias in the south do not control copper and cobalt mines.) “Conditions were adversarial at every turn,” he writes,

including aggressive security forces, intense surveillance, the remoteness of many mining areas, distrust of outsiders, and the sheer scale of hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the feverish excavation of cobalt in medieval conditions. The journey into the mining provinces was at times a jarring time warp.

He calls Kolwezi, a city in Congo’s south that sits atop and adjacent to most of the country’s cobalt, “the new heart of darkness, a tormented heir to those Congolese atrocities that came before—colonization, wars, and generations of slavery.” If Kolwezi is the heart of darkness, Kara is Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, heading upriver to show us the horror.

Kara’s book is inflected with a sort of missionary zeal that quite consciously mimics the work of E.D. Morel and Roger Casement, who exposed the brutality of the colonization of Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold II between 1885 and 1906. Their accounts of the rubber trade destroyed the myth that Leopold was a “civilizing” force for good in Central Africa. Kara writes, “Spend a short time watching the filth-caked children of the Katanga region”—in the DRC’s south—“scrounge at the earth for cobalt, and you would be unable to determine whether they were working for the benefit of Leopold or a tech company.” Having seen what he describes, I can attest to just how shocking the conditions in some mines are—and even more so considering that the minerals will end up in the devices that are so much a part of our daily lives.

Cobalt Red has been read widely, and it’s a testament to the power of Kara’s writing that it has moved people to demand better sourcing for battery minerals. Unfortunately his passion occasionally gets in the way of accuracy, as has been pointed out by several of his readers, including John Dell’Osso of the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. Sometimes Kara reports his sources’ contentions as fact without verifying them, a dangerous game in a country like Congo, where, after civil war, dictatorship, and colonization, conspiracy theories abound. For example, he repeats assertions that four international companies buy cobalt from an illegal artisanal mine without presenting evidence beyond the fact that some of his colleagues and the miners he interviewed “agreed” that they did; that the international mining firm Glencore shut down a mine to put pressure on the government or even to diminish global supply and thereby raise prices; and that Kabila is plotting a return to power, without citing a source. What’s worse is that Kara doesn’t seem to have spoken to the companies he makes allegations against, and that he has not visited the industrial sites he discusses. (During my reporting trips to Congo, I have been able to visit several industrial mine sites and, like Kara, have been blocked from others.)

Another assertion he allows a source to make unchallenged is that artisanally mined cobalt is of a better quality than industrially mined cobalt. In this Kara might be referring to the fact that a great deal of the highest-quality ore is close to the surface, where artisanal miners can extract it, but whether it is dug out using a mechanical excavator or a crowbar has no effect on its grade. And his claim that some Congolese miners have never seen smartphones is frankly unbelievable in twenty-first-century Africa, where Chinese-made devices are everywhere, even in very remote towns and villages.

Kara contends that the struggle of Congo is unknown in the wider world, and the book’s publicity material contends that his is the “first-ever exposé” of the evils of cobalt mining, a little like the work of Morel and Casement. The claim is an overstatement at best, and Kara barely acknowledges or cites earlier writing on Congo’s artisanal mining, such as the 2016 report “This Is What We Die For” by Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a Congolese NGO. The report revealed that “companies along the cobalt supply chain are failing to conduct adequate human rights due diligence,” accusing big multinational companies like Apple, Dell, and Volkswagen of profiting off child labor and unsafe work practices. “This Is What We Die For” increased awareness and monitoring, and some firms tried to remove the most unsafe and exploitative mines from their supply chains. Others, of course, only paid lip service to these concerns.

Kara rightly says that the people of Congo must be able to “safely speak” for themselves, without the fear of persecution by the state, political groups, or businesspeople. Yet he tends to ignore Congolese work on exploitation in artisanal mining: his bibliography contains only one book by a Congolese writer. An excellent, if academic, book by a Congolese writer on the subject that Kara doesn’t cite is Claude Iguma Wakenge’s Eating the Congo: Unveiling State Governance of Copper and Cobalt Mining in Former Katanga, which was published in English in 2019 and was based on years of research and interviews with over two hundred people. Iguma tries to make sense of the “foggy governance patterns” in the region to offer “a fine-grained diagnosis of how the extractive sector is governed in practice.”

Perhaps Iguma’s work makes for less sensational reading, but his description of overlapping webs of corruption is fascinating and insightful. Analyzing an alphabet soup of government agencies, he shows how the fragmented governance of Congo, along with corruption at all levels by regional and national players, allows abuses to occur, and how each of the seven state security units charged with protecting Congolese from abuses, including fraud, instead receives revenue from extortion. Writers like Kara would do well to read Iguma, who clearly explains how people at different levels in the mineral supply chain are able to steal.

Cobalt Red gives the current president, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, a free pass. (“Tshisekedi initiated an anti-corruption campaign targeting the mining sector,” Kara writes, brushing aside questions about whether the 2018 election that brought him to power was rigged.) But free and fair voting is one of the most important pillars of a democracy. Congolese will go to the polls again this December, but many are disillusioned with the country’s electoral process. The Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 observers to counter fraud at the polls, questioned the result, and shortly after the election the Financial Times analyzed a dataset of electronic vote tallies, finding that Tshisekedi received only about 20 percent of the vote.

It was reported that Kabila, the previous president, whose rule involved enormous graft, had made a deal with Tshisekedi to retain power, and although Kabila has been slowly edged out, the corrupt practices that characterized his regime have continued. “We see the same behavior,” the editor Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu, an analyst who focuses on China–Africa relations, told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. “We again see a regime in need of money, and the only place you find money in Congo is the mining sector.” Tshisekedi, the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, has a collection of gold watches, including a $200,000 Patek Philippe, and he has cracked down on press freedoms. Last year his regime shut down radio stations and locked up, tortured, and expelled dozens of journalists. (I was one of those detained.) This year, several journalists have been detained in the run-up to December’s general election, and a video was published online of one being whipped by a soldier.

Kara ignores—or is unaware of—the enormous and quite public corruption in Tshisekedi’s inner circle, including a special adviser who illegally worked with a multinational mining company and a politician who was made vice–prime minister in charge of the national economy after having been convicted of embezzling some $50 million. Since the publication of the book, Kara has continued to praise Tshisekedi on Twitter.

Cobalt Red lacks proposals to ameliorate the abuses of artisanal mining. The closest Kara has come to promoting reforms is a tweet thread in which he urged people to read his book and plugged an upcoming study written by him along with a film based on Cobalt Red. “We flood the world with truth, and people of conscience will set things right,” he wrote. “They always have, and they always will.”

Kara explains that he doesn’t want to offer solutions because they must come from locals, yet he doesn’t mention any ideas from Congolese miners or the Congolese people in general. Perhaps nobody volunteered solutions to him, although when I have reported there, my interviewees have brimmed with possibilities. The most workable of these, to my mind, is increasing Congo’s agricultural capacity. The country relies on imports, and food is seriously expensive: miners sometimes have to spend 40 percent of their monthly salaries on a twenty-five-kilogram bag of maize, a staple for many families. Another good idea is free schooling: many miners told me they were working in dangerous conditions to pay for their children’s (or their own) school fees.

Yet another widely proposed solution is the formalization of artisanal mining, which has advanced in fits and starts since the practice was enshrined into the country’s 2002 mining code. The code built on a Mobutu-era law that permitted small-scale mining outside of industrial concessions, and it established “artisanal zones” where permitted artisanal miners could work.

Baumann-Pauly’s Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo focuses on the Mutoshi mine, where an attempt at formalization was made between 2018 and 2020. The Mutoshi project was instituted by Pact, a human development NGO based in Washington, and funded by Chemaf, a mining company, and Trafigura, a multinational commodities trader. (Trafigura undertook logistics for Baumann-Pauly’s research, but the funding came from a center at Wharton, where she is a fellow.) Kara visited the site, though he wasn’t able to interview anyone who worked there and in Cobalt Red dismisses Mutoshi’s promise of supply chain transparency as “a fiction,” with only a few improvements to people’s lives.

Baumann-Pauly, however, interviewed sixty miners and local residents. Through her research, she shows how safety improvements and the integration of women—who were previously considered to bring bad luck to male miners—had tangible positive effects on the local community. For example, child labor was eliminated, and school attendance increased as mothers were able to support their children with extra income. (Although Kara agrees with Baumann-Pauly that formalization at Mutoshi reduced sexual assault and child labor while expanding access to fresh water, he contends that child-mined cobalt was still being smuggled onto the site to make up for production shortfalls.) In general, formalization increased salaries and quality of life.

After the Mutoshi formalization project ended in March 2020, ostensibly for Covid-related reasons, life became much worse. “There were over 3 million hours worked without a lost-time injury and no artisanal mine fatalities at the fenced Mutoshi pilot site during the roughly two years of the pilot project,” Baumann-Pauly writes. “Since the end of formalization…there have been seven work-related deaths, most related to tunnel collapses.” She notes that local businesses have suffered, too, and that an estimated three hundred children now mine on the site every day because many of the women who were supporting their families during the formalization period are earning less.

Baumann-Pauly is fairly clear-eyed about the causes of artisanal mining. “Powerful economic forces attract destitute people to mining in areas that lack other means of making a living,” she writes, building on a 2020 report she wrote for the World Economic Forum. Yet unlike Kara, she thinks that artisanal mining can contribute to the local economy and be made safer through training, better equipment, the use of mechanical processes for accessing ore, and reinforced tunnels. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) operations, she writes,

are an integral part of cobalt mining in the DRC and…there is a growing need for formalization…. Formalization brings the revenue-generating activities of ASM into the formal sector by setting and enforcing basic human rights standards for the extraction process, and it offers a viable approach for addressing risks related to cobalt mining.

It is fair to say that projects such as Mutoshi don’t provide all the answers, even though there is much to be learned from them. They are often seen as less desirable economic alternatives to unformalized artisanal mining because they involve monopsonies, in which miners sell to only one organization, allowing the buyer to drive down prices. During the Mutoshi project, Chemaf functioned as a kind of monopsony, setting the price of the ore it bought. Baumann-Pauly’s report, however, shows that projects like Mutoshi shouldn’t simply be dismissed as “fictions” but rather engaged with seriously.

The challenges of formalization are reported in several excellent recent books examining the situation in Congo’s east, an area of the country that in the past two decades has seen more fighting than Katanga. Conflict Minerals Inc.: War, Profit and White Saviourism in Eastern Congo by Christoph N. Vogel, a conflict researcher and a former UN Security Council expert who has spent years working in the DRC, focuses on the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI), a free trade project that involved Pact, and major tin producers as well as Congolese government agencies. In the 2000s reports criticizing artisanal mining of gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum led to an effective embargo of eastern Congolese minerals and the creation of ITSCI, which Vogel contends actually hurt populations by entrenching corruption and driving down prices. Tantalum is refined from an ore called coltan. The metal is used in capacitors and cell phones and was said to be funding conflict between the state and a hodgepodge of rival rebel groups, many of which were supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

ITSCI formalizes and certifies mines as “conflict-free” and tags bags of tin, tungsten, and tantalum that are destined for international markets. Vogel is uncompromising in his portrait of the initiative:

Arriving first in the new frontier market of “ethical minerals,” ITSCI applied a blueprint private sector model—first come, first served—to reorder supply chains by sealing them off from competitors and placing local producers in a stranglehold…. It got embroiled in pre-existing struggles over authority, fostered unemployment and school dropouts, reduced local revenue, and helped perpetuate violent taxation and corruption amidst ongoing insecurity.

In 2019, he points out, both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Congolese government confirmed that ITSCI resulted in declining revenues for artisanal miners. ITSCI was also able to push down mineral prices, as it was the only buyer of “conflict-free” minerals, while informal “taxation” by regulatory bodies increased, and human rights abuses continued even after a mine was certified.

Still, if formalization is pursued, there are many ways it could work to bring benefits to local populations; indeed, artisanal mining happens in many other parts of Africa in safer conditions than in the DRC. It’s important to note here that though the DRC presents a particularly dire version of the artisanal mining conundrum, in which the safety and rights of workers must be balanced with their economic needs, issues of safety and human rights arise practically everywhere such mining takes place on the continent. The involvement in mining of entrenched state and political interests is also sadly not limited to the DRC. Literature from across Africa shows that formalization schemes in countries like Zambia have fallen short of their goals and have not sufficiently improved the lives of miners there. In the words of Twivwe Siwale, a researcher writing on Zambia at the International Growth Centre, a joint project of Oxford University and the London School of Economics, formalization “is a necessary but insufficient condition for the development of the sector.”

Formalization is also questioned in The Eyes of the World: Mining the Digital Age in the Eastern DR Congo by James H. Smith, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, who has worked for more than a decade in the country. He argues that formalization creates a shadow economy of fraudulent certification for bags of minerals and that it perpetuates old colonialist tropes: “Corporations can cloak themselves in the signs of cleanliness, civility, and peace, while those they push out are made to be synonymous with darkness and savagery once again.” Moreover, banning artisanal mining—which keeps people “from more violent ways of making a living”—can have a deleterious effect: at one site where mining was banned, Smith notes, the security situation deteriorated.

The Eyes of the World looks at how groups of “decentralized” artisanal miners, working collaboratively in the ruins left by war and industrialization, can support themselves and their vulnerable communities. The “resource curse” can be dispelled, in Smith’s estimation, through “collective decision-making about the uses and future of earth and its products.” “I came to see those in the trade,” he writes,

as engaged in a recuperative project, as grappling—physically and conceptually—with some of the most profound issues and changes of our time and as pioneering new ways of engaging with and thinking through global capitalism.

Smith asks us to “imagine the modes of political organization that might potentially emerge around artisanally-mined minerals if they were not in the process of being crushed by corporations and the state.”

Already the situation described by Murton, the British ambassador, at DRC Mining Week is coming to pass. Lithium iron phosphate batteries power more electric vehicles in China than models that use cobalt, and US electric car manufacturers are starting to use batteries that have very little or no cobalt. (Solid-state battery technology will also allow battery makers to reduce the amount of cobalt they use.) This has to do partly with economics—cobalt is more expensive than many minerals—but also with the negative press that has dogged cobalt. Its price has crashed recently, and all of my sources in Congo indicate that people are suffering, and mining in even more dangerous circumstances.

The questions posed by artisanal mining can’t be answered in the Manichaean fashion with which readers have reacted to the publicity surrounding Cobalt Red. Some people—and especially those inclined toward fossil fuel vehicles—have called for a boycott of so-called blood cobalt. In late June Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, introduced a bill that would boycott Congolese cobalt and lithium, stating that “the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the vast cobalt resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo to fuel its economy and global agenda.” On Twitter Kara applauded Smith’s “courage and moral leadership.” A boycott without significant investment in alternative sources of income, however, would simply deprive the poorest people in the region of a lifeline. (To be fair to Smith and his colleagues in Washington, I recently learned that they are exploring how to create non-mining jobs in southern Congo.) It also probably wouldn’t stop artisanal mining: almost all of the cobalt mines in Congo’s south also contain huge amounts of copper, which has been mined in the region since at least the fourth century and is in great demand among rapidly growing and electrifying African economies.

“The uncritical equation of artisanal mining with criminality and state fragility not only ignored motivations and interests of local stakeholders,” Vogel warns, “but also generated effects opposed to the stated aims of development actors—namely more violence, as empirical data demonstrates.” Governments, NGOs, and international companies need to properly engage with people involved in the artisanal trade, not simply patch on solutions like ITSCI, if they want to truly help people at the bottom of the supply chain. This involves encouraging a diverse economy, prosecuting corruption, and supporting free and fair elections, the bedrock of legitimacy in any democracy. In the end, it is about taking seriously the problems facing the Congolese people. As the CEO of a company trying to use blockchain to give local stakeholders control of mining data recently told me, “We have an amazing opportunity here. We have something that we need from Congo. Why not pay them for it and help them develop a better society?”

This Issue

December 7, 2023

Nicolas Niarchos is a journalist and writer. He is working on a book about battery minerals and where they come from. (December 2023)


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