Exploited by Chinese firms, workers as young as nine risk their lives to feed the world’s growing hunger for cobalt.
Solange Kanena sits on her broken orange sofa, heavily pregnant, resting. Looking around her three-room shack, she wonders how she will feed her eight children. Her husband died in a mining accident 10 days ago.
She has never held an iPhone and has no idea what an electric car is. But when the deep, muddy tunnel collapsed on her husband, he was digging for a commodity that is critical to the batteries of both: cobalt.
Last year about 70% of the world’s supply came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt places on Earth. Much of its cobalt comes from around this town.
“Without DR Congo there is no electric car industry and no green revolution,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, head of Rights and Accountability in Development (Raid), a UK-based campaign group.
It is estimated that 125m electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030, about 40 times more than at present. Britain is among a number of countries planning to phase out petrol and diesel in the next 20 years.
However, while electric car owners might feel happy about cutting carbon emissions, the dark side of the green revolution is all too visible in Kolwezi’s modern-day gold rush.
In the shadow of shafts dug by huge multinational companies such as Glencore is what looks like a human anthill, one of the “artisanal” mines that account for 20% of production. Child labour is common and safety standards are non-existent.
In the Cinq Ans district, 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 is even a hole beside a church where a gospel choir is in full song.
Known as creuseurs, 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.
Two holes sink to a dizzying depth in Tabue Joseph’s garden, where scrawny chickens peck at the earth. “A few years ago a local guy was digging a latrine in his yard and came across cobalt, so we all started,” he said.
“The conditions of mines are terrible,” said Josue Kashal, a lawyer for miners. “Any time a tunnel can collapse, but they keep going.”
Kanena knew how dangerous the job was. “I knew it was risky, particularly these days when it is raining,” she said. “But there is no other work.”
On February 28, when Alain did not come home she went to the hospital. “I found his dead body and collapsed crying,” she said.
There were nine bodies in all. But no accident was reported. According to Kashal, accidents are often kept secret: “They know the government and other partners may use it as an excuse to close the artisan mines and take over the land.”