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MINING & WORKER’S PLIGHT: The Case Of Electric Battery Mineral Source In The DRC

After revelations of child labor and treacherous conditions in many cobalt mines, automakers and mineral companies said they would adhere to international safety standards.

Democratic Republic of Congo — Alain Kasongo, burly and goateed, worked for four years driving the heavy trucks that hauled away tons of cobalt ore from a gaping hole at one of the biggest mines in Congo. The vibrations from the equipment and the jolts of driving over rough ground during his 12-hour shifts could be bone-rattling, he said. Finally, the pain in his spine grew so unbearable that he needed surgery.

His older brother, Patchou Kasongo Mutuka, worked the same job at the same mine. He suffered the same injury and required the same surgery — as did 13 other drivers of excavators and trucks at the mine who were interviewed. They lifted their shirts to reveal surgical scars and spread out carefully folded medical records confirming their accounts. They in turn named seven more colleagues who had suffered the same fate, all within a two-year period.

“It hurt so badly when I went home, I would lie awake at night,” said Alain Kasongo, 43, displaying bumps and ridges on his body from what he said were three operations.

The pressure to produce cobalt is tremendous. It is an essential ingredient in the batteries of most electric vehicles and many consumer electronics. And the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Congo for short, is the king of cobalt. Last year, it accounted for about three-quarters of global production, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. This cobalt can come at a high human price.

Seven years ago, revelations about dire working conditions in Congo’s informal mining sector vaulted into the world’s headlines after Amnesty International and the Congolese rights group Afrewatch published a report detailing deaths and injuries among the countless children working in small-scale, hand-dug mines, often in manually carved tunnels that frequently collapsed and buried the young miners alive.

Since then, global appetite for Congo’s cobalt has grown sharply, mostly driven by a dramatic increase in the demand for EVs. Nearly 90 percent of the cobalt produced in Congo, home to half the world’s reserves, goes into batteries, including those used by American, French, German, Japanese and South Korean automakers. Demand for cobalt is projected to increase 20-fold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

EVs are widely considered crucial to addressing climate change. Their adoption is spreading at a breakneck pace, fueling soaring demand for minerals including cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese that go into building EV batteries and the overall vehicles. But the extraction and processing of these metals, in far-flung parts of the world, often take a significant and largely unrecognized toll on workers, local communities and the environment.

Without a full accounting, there is a risk that the green-energy transition could repeat the painful history of earlier industrial revolutions.

CREDIT: Washington Post



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