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Cobalt, Congo, and the Costs of Fighting Climate Change

By Shanivi Srikonda
By Joshua Ochieng, Crimson Opinion Writer
Joshua Ochieng ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.

Burning forests, flooding homes, and raging famine. The impending doom of climate change is scarcely a revelatory fact. The world — at least most of it — has come to the consensus that we are living on borrowed time, and that we ought to do something about it.

Since fossil fuels are one of the greatest contributors to climate change, alternatives such as electricity are in high demand. The use of electric vehicles has been endorsed by celebrities, subsidized by governments, and made the subject of research and teaching by our very own institution — and that support is well-earned.

With increased demand for electric vehicles and the batteries used to power them, the World Bank has estimated that production of battery metals will increase by up to sixfold by 2050.

What many people might not know is that two thirds of the world’s cobalt — the key metal used to make these batteries — comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Curse of Congo

Located at the heart of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the continent’s second largest country. Congo is rich in natural resources: From the rubber that powered the bicycle industry and later the automobile revolution, to the uranium used for nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the cobalt used in electric car batteries, Congo has often been the center of attention for outsiders looking to manufacture on a large scale.

And yet, Congo’s wealth in natural resources has not translated to wealth for its citizens. With nearly 62 percent of its population living on less than $2.15 per day in 2022, Congo is one of the five poorest countries in the world.

If anything, Congo’s wealth in minerals has been the architect of much of its misfortune. Political instability, deadly conflicts that have claimed lives of more than five million individuals, and human rights abuses — all of which can be traced back to Congo’s wealth.

This has been the curse of the Congo, and it dates back almost a century and a half, decades before Congo became a sovereign nation.

The Heart of Darkness: King Leopold’s Congo

The geographical area that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was once the Congo Free State, the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Under the guise of protecting its people against the slave trade, King Leopold claimed Congo in 1885 as his own personal property. With a huge market for ivory in Europe, King Leopold saw an opportunity to make a fortune from Congo — even if it occasionally required extorting the locals to do his bidding.

Around the same time, in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic wheel revolutionized motor transport in Europe — and changed the fate of the Congolese for the worse.

Congo was rich in rubber, and the subsequent boom in the demand for the material came as great news for King Leopold’s finances. With an army, the Force Publique, at his disposal, he could extract and profit from the rubber as much as he liked.

The locals, of course, bore the brunt of this venture.

Given the labor-intensive nature of extracting rubber, it became increasingly difficult for the Force Publique to supervise labor directly. Accordingly, officials resorted to quotas to make sure production would still meet global demand.

To enforce the quotas, the soldiers would kidnap the wives and kids of the local men and hold them hostage until the quotas were met. Failure to meet the quotas meant that their families would be left to starve — often to death — or have their hands chopped off. The Force Publique would raid villages, capturing produce and livestock, and until a village chief made coordinated efforts to produce a certain amount of rubber, the villagers would be left to starve to death.

Children were not spared. Often used as porters for European explorers, they were forced to carry heavy loads on their backs through treacherous paths, where several of them would die from exhaustion and starvation. Children would be subjected to brutal punishment for as little as laughing in the presence of a white man. Many of them were kidnapped, or had their parents killed, and taken to missionaries in child colonies where they were trained to become soldiers for the Force Publique.

Eventually, as African American missionaries were sent to Congo to scout for possible relocation for freed enslaved individuals, the horrors that had been neatly tucked in Congo were exposed to the rest of the world, and international pressure forced King Leopold II to hand over the colony to the Belgian government.

By this time, 8 to 10 million individuals had died in Congo — a number that, despite its shocking magnitude, is conspicuously left out in the traditional Eurocentric litany of the 20th century’s horrors.

King Leopold wiped out close to half the population of Congo in less than three decades.

King Leopold’s ghost still haunts Congo. Cobalt mining in Congo today is characterized by elements eerily similar to how rubber was extracted in the past — exploitation, destitution and death.

Old Wounds, New Injuries

While most of Congo’s cobalt is extracted from large mines owned by foreign conglomerates, an estimated 20 percent is hand-mined by artisanal miners.

Working without any protective gear, artisanal miners dig deep underground tunnels to access the mineral ore and extract it by hand using basic tools. In the process, they are exposed to dust containing cobalt, which puts them at high risk for lung disease. Because the hand-dug tunnels are unsupported, many of them collapse, often claiming the lives of the miners.

For artisanal miners, safety is a luxury preserved for those who have means.

Close to 40,000 children, some of them as young as six years old, work at these artisanal mines. With unpromising prospects for their education, many of these children are forced to work in the mines to support themselves or their families. And their work isn’t light: From carrying heavy bags on their backs to digging out ores by hand, the children of the mines perform tasks almost indistinguishable from the ones carried out by their adult counterparts.

While artisanal mines account for most of the dangerous forms of extraction, the multinational conglomerates operating the mines can hardly absolve themselves of wrongdoing. In mining regions, the chain of events after mineral deposits are discovered is almost formulaic. Vast tracts of tree-covered land are cleared, toxic effluents start contaminating the water, the air becomes dense with dust from extraction, and soon enough, a manager from the mine announces that the venture has to relocate — leaving the local miners and polluted ecosystem behind.

Beyond Divestment

Given all the destruction that cobalt mining causes, should we give up on electric vehicles?

Certainly not. The point of my article is not to decry the idea of electric vehicles as the sole and root cause of Congo’s misfortunes.

My point is that as agitators for clean energy alternatives, we are not doing enough.

At both the institutional and student level, Harvard is at the forefront of climate change action. From institutes that conduct solution-oriented research to activism by students that pushes for accountability and action, there is no scarcity of campus discourse on combating the climate crisis.

As we continue to innovate toward and advocate for clean energy alternatives, we must find solutions that go beyond just “cleaner” alternatives. We must find solutions that do not create other problems.

This does not mean we should wash our hands of Congo. Blanket assertions of corruption as being responsible for the situation in Congo deeply misconstrue the crux of the issue — Congo’s problems are also the world's problems.

The need for car tires, nuclear ammunition, cell phones and electric vehicles, and the willingness to have them at whatever costs, have driven Congo further and further into her current predicament. As such, we have a responsibility to Congo to do better.

I wish that our rush to stop the ticking time bomb that is climate change was not so inextricably linked to Congo — but that would be nothing more than a comforting lie. Cobalt mining in Congo reminds us that creating a sustainable future does not end with divesting from fossil fuels, or even ceasing their use. The conversation must go on, to ensure that our alternatives do not leave us in the same situation we are in with fossil fuels.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: Does saving the future of the planet have to mean Congo dies today?

Joshua Ochieng ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.

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