cobalt blue

Child Cobalt

Children are a cheap and bountiful source of labour in poorer countries. When the fruits of their labour are highly valued or exist in a growing demand market, child labour can flourish. Then, instead of getting an education, a child can be used to feed the market. That child’s life can be cut short by dangerous working conditions.

We are the market. Our iPads, smart phones, home battery systems and electric cars form a boom growth market for rare minerals. Investment in mobile energy is at an all-time high. It is fuelled by good things: connectivity, mobility and a global commitment to address climate change. Metals such as lithium and cobalt are essential for the current and next generation of batteries in these products. They face an unprecedented growth in demand and, therefore, supply.

Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC). It is a region infused with a legacy of conflict and poverty. Life is cheap, and children’s lives are on mass discount. In these conditions, warlords grow economies of artisanal (individually small-scale) cobalt mining, using young people.

They use a subtle but potent blend of coercion and payment to recruit child miners as young as 10 years. Smaller, skinnier children armed with a small pick, a torch and a bag are best. They wriggle quickly down narrow tunnels hundreds of metres deep and retrieve handfuls of cobalt ore. They hand over their bags to waiting men, who pay them per bag. Their bags are then collected in trucks – hundreds and thousands of them – and driven to dozens of small processing facilities. From there, the refined cobalt makes its way along ever-narrowing supply funnels to overseas manufacturing facilities. These bear household names such as Apple, Samsung and Tesla.

I went to school not far from the cobalt-rich Katanga province in the DRC, across the border in Zambia’s Copperbelt province. Armed home invasions were frequent where I lived, and my family endured our share. But nothing alarmed us so much as rumours of Congolese warlord criminals in the area. They were hard, cruel types.

For many years in my childhood, this region was my home; and the children in the cobalt supply chain today are those of my peers. Every year, for the last ten years, I have bunkered down in Katanga with like-minded people from corporations, aid agencies and NGOs, wrestling with the problem. I find its existence offensive.

In 2017, Tesla and Apple publicly promised to cease buying cobalt from sellers that had used children in the supply chain. This is better than no action, but it is insufficient. The problem to solve should be less self-interested, less reputationally centred: “How do I make sure MY supply is clean?” and more collectively: “As companies driving this economy, how can we eliminate the activity that taints supply chains?” Otherwise, the 2017 declarations risk parrying the problem off to someone else to solve.

“Someone else” will not be able to solve it. There is no silver bullet. There will be no single heroic act to stop the tide.

Thirty years of involvement in complex socio-economic problems like poverty alleviation in the Cajamarca district of Peru, artisanal mining in West Papua and HIV-AIDs in African mining communities have taught me a valuable lesson. To solve a difficult problem like this, we need a strategy with multiple arms. We need diverse and influential players, each with a little bit to lose or gain, to collaborate. And we need time – many years or even decades – to execute that strategy.

That requires commitment around a shared vision. Contempt for part-solutions. Bold strategy. And the collective resilience to see it through.

We need investment in scaled-up alternative economies that make artisanal cobalt mining with children comparatively less attractive. Blue chip mining companies in the region like Anglo American, Glencore, and BHP Billiton have the skills and resources to drive this. Yet too often they point out that mining, not stimulating alternative economies, is their business.

We need enabling laws and links to markets to make artisanal mining viable off the black market. And then we need regulatory control of the industry to protect children from coerced labour. Institutions like the UN and World Bank, who provide loans, development funds and administrative capacity to the region, can more forcefully use economic and political leverage to make this happen.

We need you and I, our families and friends, and the companies we work for, to avoid buying mobile devices and batteries that cannot prove their cobalt is child-free. Perhaps start with Samsung, who were notably silent when Apple and Tesla made their commitments in 2017, and progressively ramp up your impatience with the whole industry.

Even with these actions in place, it would still take many years to reverse an increasingly appalling situation. But today, a child born in rural DRC has every chance of becoming a victim of child labour. That is not acceptable. Let us change it. Not from tomorrow or next year, but from now.



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