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The Chinese Cruel Cobalt Conundrum: A ground report from Congo

“The partnership between DRC and China … my country did not get anything out of the Sino Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) agreement”

Muzito (Between 2008 to 2012, Muzito was the prime minister of the DRC)

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Our reporters visited the DRC and spoke with numerous adults and children employed in the cobalt mines. They spent weeks conducting extensive research using both online and offline sources. The primary conclusions and complete report on the “Chinese Cruel Cobalt Conundrum” are provided below.

Key Findings

  • Most of the DRC’s largest mines including Dezwia Mine, Kamfundwa Mine, Tenke Fungurume Mine (TFM), Sicomines Copper-Cobalt Mine, Kolwezi Mine, Kamoya Mine, and Ruashi Mine, are under Chinese ownership.
  • In several of the mines owned by Chinese enterprises, we conducted a survey of the miners. According to the findings, about 82% of miners reported having skin problems, 85.4% had breathing problems, 52.7% had significant injuries within the previous year, and 12.6% said a family member/friend had passed away within the last two years as a result of a disease, an injury, or a mine collapse brought on by the Cobalt Mining operations.
  • Heavy gear is used in the DRC’s cobalt mining process, harming the environment and obliterating animal and plant habitats. In addition to producing pollution and health problems, the mining process also releases hazardous compounds and heavy metals into the land and water.
  • Artisanal miners have manually dug almost 20,000 tunnels in Congo. The miners enter the structure without any PPE equipment and use basic tools like hammers, gardening hoes, shafts, and even just their bare hands to dig the tunnels. These tunnels frequently collapse, suffocating everyone within, including children, in full consciousness.
  • Cobalt mining in the DRC is linked to the trade in conflict minerals, which are minerals that are mined in conflict zones and sold to finance armed groups and militias.
  • There are still over 30,000 children below 14 years and over 70,000 children below 18 years of age who are directly or indirectly employed by the mining companies in Congo.
  • Behemoths in technology such as Apple, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Samsung assert that they only use cobalt that has been ethically mined and supplied, yet the majority of them rely on the smelters’ statements, which are primarily Chinese. 

China and Cobalt

China has invested heavily in the cobalt industry in recent years, as cobalt is a key material used in the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other electronics. The exact total investment of China in cobalt is difficult to quantify as China keeps such data highly censored yet Ij-Reportika has estimated that China leads the world in refined cobalt production at 70% of total global supply;

According to a report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 2022, China was the largest producer of refined cobalt and the largest importer of cobalt-containing intermediate products in the world.

Global cobalt mine production, 2010-2022, tonnes. Credits: USGS

In 2022, there was a boom in the production of Cobalt. With 130,000 tonnes of cobalt produced in 2022, the Democratic Republic of the Congo(DRC) was the world’s largest source of mined cobalt, accounting for about 68% of the global cobalt mine production.

Largest cobalt mine-producing countries, tonnes. Credits: USGS. 2022

In the complete report, we have covered all the mines under Chinese ownership. One such example is the Tenke Fungurume Mine (TFM). Freeport-McMoRan Inc. and BHR’s 56% and 24% equity in the TFM copper-cobalt company in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were successfully acquired by China Molybdenum Co., Ltd. in 2016 and 2019, respectively.

80% of the total equity in TFM is presently held by China Molybdenum Co., Ltd. (CMOC). Through its directly controlled wholly-owned subsidiary in Hong Kong, CMOC DRC Limited, the China Molybdenum Co., Ltd. gained influence over the TFM copper-cobalt business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The mine is expected to operate until 2052.

This mine has been the center of controversies since CMOC  took over the majority shares of TFM.  The mine has long been an important stop for Tenke residents, who believe it to be part of their land. The Congolese military was sent to monitor the mine for several months by the CMOC  to stop this from happening.

Recently, one of these natives was struck dead by the patrolling army. Another individual died as a result of the protests that erupted after the terrible killing. Security at the mine is supplemented by the private security company Frontier Services Group or 先丰服务集团 (Chinese Africa-focused security, aviation, and logistics company).

Our ground reporter visited the mine and observed that most of the native workers were not equipped with the security gear to mine cobalt.

Tenke Fungurume Deposit (Credits: Environmental Justice Atlas)
Picture of the Tenke Fungurume Deposit Area

The Causes of Concern

Chinese mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has caused several problems, including:

Environmental degradation

Cobalt mining in the DRC involves the use of heavy machinery, which damages the environment and destroys habitats for plants and animals. The mining process also releases toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and water, causing pollution and health risks.

Deforested land in DRC from 2011 to 2021 corresponding with the primary mining areas (Credits: Global Forest Watch)

The Tunnels to Hell

The official limit of tunnel length is 30 meters, however, this is frequently exceeded. Tunnels can reach heights of up to 90 meters because of poor administration and a lack of incentives to follow rules, which puts people in danger of landslides, collapse, and death.

In the course of compiling this report, we discovered many such tunnels. They were extremely hot from the inside and had a lack of Oxygen. We found that, in the DRC alone, artisanal miners have dug approximately 20,000 tunnels by hand. Without a PPE kit, safety helmet, safety (hard) shoes, or gloves, the miners get into the structure. Instead of using modern, complex, and advanced technologies to dig the tunnel, they used simple instruments like hammers, gardening hoes, shafts, and even sticks and bare hands.

The tunnels to hell

These tunnels frequently collapse, crushing everyone within, including minors, alive. It’s a death that’s almost impossible to fathom being so horrible. These tales never transcend Congo as the world simply ignores their stories.

Land conflicts

Cobalt mining in the DRC has often resulted in land conflicts between local communities, mining companies, and government authorities. The government has granted mining concessions to Chinese companies without consulting local communities, leading to the displacement of people and the destruction of their livelihoods.

Cobalt Mines in  Kolwezi and the direction of their expansion (Credits: Environmental Justice Atlas)

One such case study is unfolding these days in the city of Kolwezi. Victor Fwamba, seeing an open-cast cobalt mine in Kolwezi, in the southeast of the DRC, remarked, “We’re doomed”.

Kolwezi, which is home to more than 5,00,000 people, is situated atop some of the greatest mineral reserves in the world, a gold, copper, and cobalt treasure trove that powers the economies of many countries mining from them.

A moat of industrial mines, a sand moonscape with gigantic open pits, access roads, and pylons already encircle the city. Yet, mining operations are encroaching farther and deeper into the city proper, uprooting thousands of residents who frequently complain about the unjust treatment.

Ground reporter of IJ-Reportika talked to 7400 Congolese miners in Sicomines Copper-Cobalt Mine, Tenke Fungurume Mine, and  Kolwezi Mines. Around 6077 i.e. 82% reported skin problems, 6317 i.e. 85.4% reported breathing issues and 3899 i.e 52.7% reported that they suffered major injuries in the past 1 year.

To the amazement of our ground reporters, 937 miners even said someone close to them died in the past 2 years due to the disease/ injuries/mines collapse caused by the Cobalt Mining operations.

Human Rights Abuses

There have been reports of human rights abuses in cobalt mines in the DRC, including child labor, forced labor, and unsafe working conditions. Many of the workers are poorly paid and work in dangerous conditions without proper safety equipment or training.

Children below 14 are employed in cobalt mining

We found out that children as young as six years old are working in cobalt mines in the DRC. These children work long hours in dangerous conditions, without proper safety equipment or training. Child labor is illegal in the DRC, but it remains a widespread problem in the mining industry.

Girl sorting rocks to find cobalt

Despite this being a much talked about issue in the past 6 years, IJ-Reportika found out that there are still over 30,000 children below 14 years and over 70,000 children below 18 years of age who are directly or indirectly employed by the mining companies in Congo.

Read about the Vicious Infrastructure for Minerals Agreements in the complete report.

The double standards of the tech-giants

While officially claiming they only do business with cobalt suppliers, smelters, and refiners that uphold strict labor standards, Technology behemoths like Apple, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Samsung have come under fire for turning a blind eye to the exploitation of employees.

 Several Giant corporations rely on the fact that they don’t conduct business with the miners directly. Instead, they claim to hold those middlemen accountable to their codes of conduct and standards by purchasing the cobalt from refiners or smelters.

In the course of our research work, we found out that many companies release an annual report with the title “Conflict Minerals Report” claiming that they only buy cobalt that is ethically mined and sourced but most of them rely on the word of the smelters which are mostly Chinese.

Following are the lists of the smelters of cobalt of some prominent tech giants.

Apple list of smelters
Microsoft list of smelters
Samsung list of smelters
Intel list of smelters

Download the complete report