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Cobalt: The Dark Side of Electric Vehicles

James Gordon, Raconteur

An estimated 35,000 children work in perilous conditions to extract cobalt from the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So what will the impact be on these exploited workers from rapid advances in electric cars, which are heavily reliant on this conflict mineral?

Yanick Kalumbu Tshiwengu, a former child miner from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is lucky to be alive. When he was just 11 years old, Yanick went to Kolwezi to mine cobalt. Every day he descended several metres underground into makeshift tunnels and perilous shafts dug out by the miners, never knowing if he would see daylight and his family again.

How can manufacturers be sure that the cobalt which finds its way into their cars is not tainted with the blood of child miners

With no protective clothing, accidents were common. Several of his friends died underground. Yanick narrowly escaped with his life on two occasions, once when an excavator began closing the entrances to the pit shaft, blocking his escape route, and when a landslide caused a collapse. Like many of his friends, he began sniffing glue and gasoline to banish his fears, but this could not block out the painful memories that continue to haunt him.

“It was a living hell,” he says. “As children we were exploited and worked in very dangerous situations. We saw things that no child should see. There was a culture of rape and violence. Girls often fell victim to rape, which as children we were powerless to prevent. Sometimes lives were lost for a few francs. No good can ever come from the mines and I’d like to see them all closed so no child has the same experience as me.”

Demand for cobalt on the rise

Sadly, it is unlikely that Yanick, who is now 18, or the other estimated 35,000 child miners who work in western Congo’s hazardous artisanal mines, will get their wish. Why? Because the DRC, a nation the size of western Europe, mines 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt of which 20 per cent is extracted from the same unregulated small-scale mines where Yanick risked life and limb, all for less than $2 a day.

Secondly, demand for cobalt is set to increase. This rare metal already powers our mobile phones, laptops and tablets. However, cobalt is also a key component of electric car batteries. So over the next decade, with Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasting that 33 per cent of all vehicles will be electric by 2030, automakers will need to increase their supply dramatically.

But there lies the problem. In doing so, how can manufacturers be sure that the cobalt which finds its way into their cars is not tainted with the blood of child miners? It is a question that Amnesty International, the world’s leading human rights organisation, has been asking for some time.

Yanick, who is now at secondary school, says working at the mines was a “living hell”

More oversight needed over cobalt supply chains

In 2016, after a nine-month investigation, it published a report which revealed that seven of the world’s leading electric vehicle manufacturers, including Fiat-Chrysler, BMW and General Motors, had failed to carry out due diligence over their cobalt supply chains in line with the international standards elaborated by the United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Campaigner Lauren Armistead, a lead researcher on the study, says that while there is no legal requirement for companies to report publicly on their cobalt supply chains, “unless they do this, there’s no way to be sure the cobalt in their products is abuse free”.

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