Virtual Slave Labor in Congo’s Cobalt Mines



I spoke to Maurice Carney, Executive Director of Friends of the Congo, about the virtual slave labor in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mines.

AG: Maurice, you and I have talked many times for Black Agenda Report about the wartorn northeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), North and South Kivu and Ituri. We’ve talked about the Rwandan and Ugandan military aggressors, but in the southeastern provinces—which were once a single province called Katanga—there’s a different, equally horrific kind of violence going on in the vast cobalt mines that we haven’t talked about here.

That’s the violence against hundreds of thousands of artisanal miners living in the most horrific conditions, the equivalent of slavery except that they can't be bought and sold. They have absolutely no way out because men are making $1 a day, women 80 cents a day, and their children work in the mines instead of going to school.

Their environment has been so totally destroyed that their only option is to dig cobalt, shoveling dirt and banging at rocks, covered in poisonous dust, breathing it, and often dying of it. Many women work with babies strapped to their backs in the midst of this inferno. Siddharth Kara describes all this in his devastating new book, “Cobalt Red ,” where he asks one of these women to talk to him and she responds, “Who is going to fill this sack while I’m talking to you?” Another tells him that her husband died of a respiratory disease after she had two miscarriages, and that she's glad God took her children because it's better not to be born there.

MC:  Siddarth Kara does a remarkable job of documenting those conditions suffered by the people at the bottom of a capitalist food chain. He's not the first to do it, of course. Global WItness, local Congolese NGOs, and Africa Watch have all documented these conditions, not only in the artisanal mining sector, but also in the industrial mining sector. You have almost equally horrific conditions in the industrial mining sector. 

AG: DRC’s Katanga Copper Belt has been mined for nearly 200 years, hasn’t it? 

MC: Yes, and Katanga was 80% of Congo’s economy at the time of independence, in 1960, when Belgians tried to amputate it from the rest of the country, and DRC’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, died trying to defend it. 

AG: Katanga Province has been divided into several provinces, hasn't it?

MC: Yes. There were 10 provinces, and those have been broken down into 26 provinces. Katanga has been divided into four provinces, Haut-Katanga, Haut-Lomami, Lualaba, and Tanganyika, but all four are filled with mineral riches, and they are Congo’s industrial mining heart, not only of mining and mineral wealth, but also of mining receipts that go to the state.

AG: Cobalt is on the US strategic and critical minerals list , and we’re hearing that the US and China are now in competition for the cobalt mines, though Chinese corporations own far more of them than American interests do. It seems that Kabila sold leases to the Chinese, which made them the dominant power. Chinese corporations are exploiting far more mines than US corporations. US strategic planners seem to be upset about it, although even Hunter Biden was involved in some of those transactions that transferred cobalt mining interests from a US corporation to a Chinese corporation. What do you think of that?

MC: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, the framing of it is problematic because, truth be told, Congo is a capitalist free-for-all. That was its original design in the modern form, as settled at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 . The design enabled the corporations of foreign powers to have unfettered access to the riches of the Congo. It precluded any claim that the resources of the Congo belong to the Congolese people.

The system put in place at the dawn of the 20th century was capitalist extraction, not only in Congo but also throughout Africa. Congo is just the most extreme case because of its tremendous wealth, and certainly, because of the enormous suffering that the people have undergone to feed our western industries, from aerospace and military manufacture to automobiles, and you name it.

AG: Right now all the press is about the huge expansion of demand for battery technology, but I know there have been many other uses for cobalt and other minerals mined in the Copper Belt. Siddharth Karra reported that great profits were made by manufacturing bullets with Katangan copper for British and American forces during World War I. 

MC: Yes, and so this capitalist system that's in place enables that resource extraction, and any corporation or foreign government, Chinese, American, Indian, or whatever can use that capitalist conveyor belt to extract minerals out of the Congo. They’re welcomed of course by the comprador class installed to facilitate unfettered access to Congo’s riches. 

So the issue isn't so much whether the Chinese or the US has control. The issue is that there's a capitalist system in place that powers the extraction of those minerals.

I'll give you a classic example of how that works. The largest copper mine in Africa, possibly in the world, was the property of Freeport McMoran out of Arizona, which was hand-in-glove with John McCain and his wife. The US Embassy worked to secure the mining concession for Freeport McMoRan for pennies on the dollar. And this was after the World Bank, which is dominated by the US, had written the mining laws for the Congo.

At a certain point, Freeport McMoran decided to sell it for over $2.5 billion to a Chinese corporationo. That transaction occurred in 2016, so I don’t think it makes sense to make an argument that the Chinese and the United States are at odds over Congolese copper.

AG: You mean I can’t believe it because I read it in the New York Times ?

MC:  Haha. It just doesn’t make sense to me. There are politicians who are anxious about that, but there’s no sign that the US government is making any moves to control Congolese cobalt, except insofar as AFRICOM could control the flow of resources all over the continent if it wanted to.

The real point is that there is a capitalist system in place, to the point where Chinese corporations can come and obtain mining leases or purchase them from American owners, as they did. And tomorrow, the Chinese can sell them to Korea, Australian or Indian owners, or back to American owners based on their own cost/benefit analyses.  

The point for us is that they’re not owned by the Congolese. The government is not utilizing them for the benefit of the Congolese in the way that, for  example, Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela use national resources for the benefit of their people. Chile owns its copper, Bolivia owns its lithium, and Venezuela owns its oil, and they have ownership of a vertically integrated process—from mining to refining to sale—and that to a large extent benefits their people. 

AG: Let's add Eritrea to that list. Eritrea owns its own resources and utilizes them for the benefit of their people as well.  

MC: Yes, you can definitely add Eritrea. 

And now that being said, there was some friction when Kabila wanted to establish a minerals-for-infrastructure swap in 2008-2009 with the Chinese. I think it was a roughly $9 billion proposition on the table. The US and the World Bank, which is controlled by the US, didn't look too kindly on that deal. So at the same time, there was an $11 billion Western debt relief package and a $600 million World Bank grant on the table, which the US used to put pressure on the Kabila government to scuttle or at least scale back the deal with the Chinese. 

That angered the Chinese some. They got in the pages of the Financial Times and basically said that the West, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Paris Club, all of the private creditors, were blackmailing the Congolese government. So you saw something of a scuffle there. 

But the fact remains that through capitalist transactions, and through a capitalist system, the Chinese are coming out on top. 

The Chinese may not be as greedy as, let's say, US and European corporations in that they may put more palatable deals on the table, especially in terms of these deals where they say, “Okay, we will build the roads and build your hospitals and schools, and in return, we’ll extract the copper, cobalt, and what have you.”

AG: But they continue to savagely exploit the people in these mines. 

MC: Yeah, they're not interested in overturning the system in place. They’re not going to do for the Congolese what the Congolese need to do for themselves. 

AG:  In these situations, described in Siddharth Karra's book and by others, like Global Witness, Amnesty International, and Africa Watch, you are talking about vast numbers of people who have no way out of the miserable conditions they’re working in because they’re making a dollar a day and don't even have motorbikes that would allow them to ride to a depot to sell the ore they’ve mined. They have to sell it to a middleman with a motorbike or a truck who takes it to a depot. 

Of course I believe in the primary importance of  Congolese agency, which we’ve discussed many times, and hope that some day the Congolese can claim control of their own resources for the benefit of the Congolese people, but shouldn’t there also be some sort of international outcry about this? That is obviously what Siddharth Karra is trying to inspire with his book.

MC: One of the most promising international responses is the International RIghts Advocates lawsuit led by attorney Terry Collingsworth. He is suing major tech and auto companies as a way to hold them responsible for their role in the Congo and their complicity in the injury and death of children. It’s in courts here in the U.S. and we’ve had Terry Collingsworth to speak at the last few Congo Weeks . One of the best things people can do to support that lawsuit is to heighten awareness of everything we’ve been talking about.

AG: I see that he’s named Apple, Alphabet (Google), Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla as perpetrators, but not Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, or Raytheon. 

MC: Doing that would probably complicate the suit with a host of national security issues. 

AG:  Is there anything else you’d like to say? 

MC: I’d just like to add that artisanal mining is a viable sector in which many Congolese and other people in the developing world manage to eke out a living and perhaps send their children to school. It’s not all as horrendous as the exploitation in Katanga’s cobalt mines, so the last thing we’d want to do at this time is argue for a ban on artisanal mining. 

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