BLOOD COBALT: THE CONGO AND MODERN ELECTRONICS
Published In Relevant BCN magazine – see here
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is the third largest country in Africa. Its population has risen to over sixty million, a number similar to the U.K., but with an area of over ten times its size.
The Congo has reeled from a history of conflict, with the most recent clashes bringing attention to a country of massive potential wealth, coupled by the suffering of the first and second Congo wars (the second of which began in 1998 and has laid rest to over five million people).
Political and social harmony may have left the Congo, but foreign business interest has not. The Congo boasts the largest deposits of Cobalt on earth, an essential component of the manufacturing of Lithium Ion Batteries, which are widely used in our mobile phones and personal electronic devices. Coupled with this is ‘Coltan’ or
Columbite-tantalite, the extracts of which are used for everything from laptops to ABS brakes.
Eighty percent of the world’s ‘Coltan’ is produced in the eastern Congo, specifically the Mushangi Hills of the South Kivu region, a mountainous area hugging the border and Rwanda beyond.
The Kivu region has been an area of extreme turbulence over the past decade. Its minerals have provided a steady source of wealth for the various claimants of its mines, the most recent being the Rebel Army of Laurent Nkunda. It is strongly suspected that the proceeds from the sale of Coltan and other minerals are directly funding the Rebel Army’s war against Hutu factions and government authorities in the Congo.
The mines of Kivu are mostly open-pit, with young male workers operating without necessary precautions, bare handed, to extract the relevant minerals. In the case of gold in the Kivu region, liquid mercury is sold to workers in order to more hastily separate the gold from other impurities. Mercury is highly toxic and many of the older miners have suffered from severe physical and neurological problems.
Coltan is chipped from the sides of the mines, usually imbedded within larger clumps of compressed rock and earth. The chippings are then inspected and cast away if no signs of the familiar dark grey specks can be seen. If present, the raw Coltan is picked out and gathered by the miner. Almost all of the young workers are ignorant to the use of what they are collecting. Once a modest amount of the mineral has been collected, the miner will then take his cache to a closely guarded office nearby. Here his Coltan is inspected, weighed, and exchanged for a small sum, approximately ten dollars* for a few hundred grams. This can often take days to accumulate.
Each week the Coltan is gathered into larger bags and made ready for transport. If available, the consignment is flown on extremely dangerous journeys to nearby towns. Opposing forces focus pressure on stopping the Coltan trade, making the flight a huge risk. The pilots can receive up to £1500* for a single journey. Once received, the bags of Coltan are checked further, and bought for around £50* per kilo before being transported for refinement. Local refiners can produce around five tonnes per month, a healthy figure, but one that only scratches the demand of the world market. Coltan is a wonder substance. Its ability to absorb heat has shed huge costs for the electronics market, allowing them to use other materials which through overheating would render their products useless.
There are many investors in the Coltan market, Rwanda being the highest reaper of profit, accumulating $250* million in a year and a half directly from the exploitation of Coltan in The Congo. Uganda, Burundi, and other African neighbours are also suspected in involvement. Foreign interest includes companies from the United States, Germany, China, and Belgium. After purchase the Coltan is then converted into capacitors and other devices to then be sold to electronics manufacturers such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony. Many of these companies are manufacturing for the commission of mobile phone service providers such as O2, Vodafone, and Orange. Retailers then buy their products to be sold to the general public.
It is haunting to consider that a small capacitor inside mine or your mobile phone could have been collected by a Congolese boy, probably orphaned, probably formerly a child soldier, who works for next to nothing to collect a substance that he probably does not even know the use for, his work helping to fund an small army guilty of numerous atrocities, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the exploitation of The Congo’s bounteous mineral resources.
* Figures will have changed over the course of time due to the world market, these are rough estimates intended as a guide.
This article contains extracts from the documentary ‘Cobalt Du Sangue’ shown on French TV station Canal+.