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The cobalt industry in the Congo is big business. Illegal mines, slavery, and a feudal punishment system grant us the charge in our devices.
He stands up on stage in his black turtle neck and holds it in his hand. Journos in the back lean forward, craning their necks and squinting to get a clear glimpse. As he walks us through its various applications and user interface, it becomes clear that this device has been gifted from the future or the heavens, and Steve Jobs is the Promethean man. I could not be more hyped for this moment. We’re not worthy. But there are terms and conditions we don’t yet know about.
Like most handheld electronics, smartphones run on a lithium-ion battery. Lithium ion batteries utilise lithium-cobalt-oxide, a compound known for its high energy density, necessary for a decent battery charge.
Tech firms do us all a solid and make sure these electronics are competitively priced. They don’t want to rob us blind, after all. As such, they make sure they lean on their manufacturers to source the cheapest cobalt available. In turn, the manufacturers turn to their mineral smelters and kick the proverbial can down the road until it lands in The Congo.
The Congo is a country incredibly rich in resources. During the reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II it was slaves. Nowadays it’s cobalt. But the slavery endures too. They are, after all, a cheap workforce.
During the Rwandan genocide in the mid-’90s when the extremist and violent Rwandan Hutus instigated a genocide against the neighbouring Tutsi tribe, thousands fled across the border into eastern Congo seeking refuge. Desperately poor, scared, and helpless, many found themselves under the control of tribal warlords.
In the ensuing years, when the rest of the world was learning to play snake and limit their exchanges to 160 characters whilst developing a society defining mechanical dependance, the refugees of Eastern Congo were finding themselves forced into slavery, often by a system known as peonage, the very same once favoured by plantation owners in the deep south of the US.
The peonage system sees thousands of men, women and children convicted of often non-existent crimes and sold to creditors until they paid off their debt. In a part of the world where literacy and numeracy are shockingly low, these numbers and equations mean little. Peonage is a debt you pay with your life.
If Samsung buys from Foxconn, Samsung needs only to make sure Foxconn is using smelters in Rwanda that source ethically. The smelters can say they source locally. The cobalt smuggled from Congo into Rwanda is considered “local”, thus the trail goes cold.
The slave workforce in the Congo is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Globally its tens of millions and they are responsible for $350 billion in production. The enslaved clear massive tracts of rainforest for more mining lands, often killing gorillas and other endangered and vulnerable animals for cheap meat. To put it another way, ending global forced labour would be one of the most significant victories against climate change we could achieve.
The mines in the North and South Kivu provinces of Congo are mostly illegal. They’re poorly designed tunnels that bore into the mountains. Flash flooding is common, to say nothing of the rampant disease. Corpses are pulled from the tunnels almost habitually.
Much of the cobalt is smuggled across into Rwanda for smelting or export. What’s left is exported to different countries, often by an illegal global shipping network.
If it sounds convoluted and complicated that’s because it’s supposed to be. Global ethics-focused governing bodies, armed with all the teeth of a newborn, task each level in the supply chain with ensuring their minerals are sourced ethically, but only make them responsible for two rungs lower in a chain. So if Samsung buys its batteries and chips from Foxconn, Samsung needs only to make sure Foxconn is using mineral smelters in Rwanda that source ethically. The mineral smelters can say they source locally. The cobalt that has been smuggled from Congo into Rwanda is now considered “local”, thus the trail goes cold.
But you’re not supposed to think about that. You won’t find this on any motivational poster, but capitalism tends to only work as long as someone is getting screwed. This is a global experiment in “out of sight, out of mind” and it has already been decided for you that all you’re concerned about is the next great Insta-story.
Whenever we go for that all-important handset upgrade, there are two prices that are paid. One is the cash that we fork out, the other is the life someone else paid, often a child, in some third-world country, to ensure the minerals that are needed for the battery in that device got to where they needed to go. Those terms and conditions are harsher on some than others. Maybe the S in the device name stands for slaves?