Cobalt- A mineral constituting only around 0.001% of the Earth’s crust is a rare earth mineral. Termed as ‘rare’ owing to two prime reasons. First and foremost, such a mineral occurs in low concentrations. Secondly, the process to extract such a mineral from its oxides is an arduous process. The Democratic Republic of Congo is perhaps the heaven for cobalt mining. 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt supply is fulfilled by Congo. Cobalt finds its utility in the battery manufacturing industry. These batteries are installed primarily in mobile phones and electric vehicles. In 2019, the International Rights Advocates (IRA), a non-governmental organization involved in spreading awareness about human rights and corporate accountability, filed a suit against many United States-based technology companies over the death of child labourers in the Congo cobalt mines. Going further back to 2016, a report was published by Amnesty International and African Resources Watch, stating that the gadget companies namely Apple, Samsung Electronics, etc. are not checking if they are being supplied cobalt, from Chinese Companies, which is being procured from mines employing children.
Coming to the present, the hazards and issues associated with cobalt mining are again being raised in the light of recent research undertaken by a Harvard academician- Siddharth Kara. The Harvard researcher has published his findings in a book titled- “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers our Lives”. The book vividly throws light on inhumane mining practices, abject poverty, and the plight of children forced to work in hazardous mining sites. The book also claims that the mining sites are controlled by the militia who are mercilessly pushing the future of children in stark darkness.
REAL ACCOUNTS OF ATROCITIES
Siddharth kara undertakes to conduct first-hand research on how cobalt mining unfolds in Congo and there he records instances of how people’s lives are being toyed with. He narrates the plight of a young woman who had suffered two miscarriages. She says that her husband, a cobalt miner, succumbed to a respiratory disease. What is heart-wrenching is that the woman expresses her gratitude to God for taking her children so that they need not suffer the plight the family is caught into. The book also talks about how people work without safety gadgets in the mines. The author writes about the Congolese miners who had suffered not only life-threatening diseases but were also subjected to sexual abuse.
WHY COBALT IS CALLED A BLOOD MINERAL
Cobalt mining is hazardous for both the environment as well as miners who work to extract cobalt from ores. Cobalt exposure causes several health problems including respiratory diseases, heart problems, and skin diseases. As demand for cobalt goes up in this technology-driven era, the pace of economic exploitation is also increasing. Cobalt is extracted at a high scale in Congo not only because it is rich in Cobalt but also because Congo is a country with little to no stringent environmental laws and labour standards. Cobalt miners are prone to many occupational hazards for example being at a higher risk of effluent gas exposure and being at the receiving end of physical injuries due to collapsing tunnels and large machinery.
Cobalt mining is a necessary evil. But with certain regulations and international pressure on companies procuring cobalt, much can be done for the betterment of cobalt miners. Companies need to ensure transparency about how and from where they source cobalt. Customers should boycott the products containing cobalt sourced from mines operating in hazardous conditions. Ultimately, ‘Customer is King’ and once customers become aware of the dark side of cobalt mining, the companies would buckle under the pressure of operating in a way to ensure miners’ lives are not lost in an abyss. Another way out is somewhat far-flung since it requires extensive technological development. This way out is the replacement of cobalt with other metals. What presently seems feasible is to compel mining companies to provide miners with basic amenities like clean water, medical assistance, and proper housing. Miners must be trained efficiently before working in mines so that their safety can be ensured. There has to be a blanket ban on the employment of children in these mines. Perhaps, it is time that products containing cobalt must come with an undertaking of being cruelty-free, likewise, we see today for several cosmetic products.