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Cobalt, Congo and Catastrophe

On Christmas Day 2021 a suicide bomber – a suspected member of Islamic group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – killed seven people, including two children, celebrating Christmas at a restaurant in Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This was not the only example last year of anti-Christian Islamic violence in the DRC. In June two women were severely injured when a bomb exploded in a Beni church. In May a church minister was among fifty-five people killed in ADF attacks on camps for internally-displaced persons in Irumu territory, Ituri province and Tchabi, North Kivu province. The Islamists were targeting the Christian-majority Banyali Tchabi ethnic group, also known as the Nyali. Christian leaders in the DRC warn that the ADF has suspected ties to the Islamic State (ISIS) to kidnap and force victims to join the Islamic faith, but these people are also regularly attacked because their lands are rich in gold, cobalt, copper and other mineral deposits.

The land now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo – as distinct from the Republic of Congo to its northwest – is a land of death and disease, and has never enjoyed peace since it was first colonised in the 19th century. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 that divided African territories among the European powers awarded the land to King Leopold II of Belgium, who immediately declared it his own personal possession. Leopold used what he named the Congo Free State for the production of valuable resources such as rubber, ivory and minerals, enslaving the indigenous population in the process. The result was one of the most brutally repressive regimes in human history. Torture and other atrocities were used as punishments when quotas were not met; children were abducted from their families to provide slave labour; famine and disease were rampant. Conditions were so horrific that even the other colonial powers condemned them. From an estimated twenty million in 1880, Congolese population was halved.

In 1908 Leopold was forced to surrender his possession (which was then sold to the Belgian government) but conditions in the newly-named Belgian Congo scarcely improved. On gaining independence in 1960 the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and immediately dissolved into civil war based in large part on ethnic and tribal differences. In the 62 years since independence, conflict, disease and malnutrition are thought to have caused more than six million deaths. More than half of these have been children under five.

The DRC's vast mineral resources remain a cause of hardship, not prosperity. Southern DRC is estimated to contain 3.4 million tonnes of cobalt deposits – almost half of all the world's known deposits. Cobalt compounds have been used to impart a rich blue colour to glass and ceramics for centuries, and has been detected in Egyptian sculpture, Persian jewellery from the third millennium BC and in China, dating from the Tang and Ming dynasties. Far more importantly, cobalt is highly valued as a component of lithium-ion battery cathodes and the powerful magnets embedded in the rotors of 3-phase AC synchronous electric motors. These motors power the hybrid and electric vehicles that are now being produced in ever-increasing numbers, as car manufacturers commit to an all-electric future. Cars built by Ford and Mercedes will be electric-only by 2030, while Jaguar will offer combustion-engine-powered models for only three more years. In Norway – a country blessed with an abundance of hydro-electric power and public fast-charging stations are commonplace – over 50 percent of all new cars sold are electric cars.

In a country where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day, the prospect of income from cobalt mining can become all-consuming. Informal mines are everywhere: residents will dig under their own homes and, if they have them, vegetable gardens in the hope of finding the precious metal. Impoverished people will break into official mines in order to dig, lacking the necessary safety equipment and risking a severe beating if caught. Child labour is common – of an estimated 255,000 miners in the DRC around 40,000 are children. Many as young as three have been known to work in mines, some spending up to a week at a time in tunnels and mineshafts, eating infrequently. Children quickly learn to assess the value of the stones and metals they unearth.

Conditions for all miners are dangerous – even in official mines – with cave-ins and other disasters a constant risk. The cobalt itself is hazardous, sometimes radioactive, containing toxins that can be harmful to young children while increasing the risk of birth defects and still-births in pregnant women. It may affect the heart, thyroid, liver and kidneys, with repeated exposure causing scarring of the lungs (fibrosis) even if no symptoms are noticed. The mines can also be places of violence – church leaders who try to minister to the miners face fearful reprisals if they are seen to disrupt work, and efforts to reform the sector have led to little if any change.

This highlights the fact that there are very serious things happening in parts of the world we seldom think of and that in order to gain a share of the electric vehicle market, manufacturers are willing to turn a blind eye to horrible working and living conditions in order to make a dollar. We can only pray that the gospel will reach the hearts of those in the DRC and that God would raise up a leader who will work for the good of the people and their nation. They are minerally rich, but spiritually poor. May God bring spiritual riches to them!

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