Blog post by HTS Research Fellow Luke Fanous
Saving the planet should not come at the expense of people’s human rights, but right now, it is.
Climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing today’s world. During my lifetime it has transformed from a fearful prospect of the future, to a terrifying lived reality. In just the last few years, we’ve seen major natural disasters, record high temperatures, and rising sea levels: all linked to the climate crisis. There is a consensus among a majority of leading experts and their research tells an alarming story. We must respond immediately to this issue or these devastating consequences will only grow worse.
One big step to addressing the climate crisis is transforming the energy sector, which powers the world from individual homes to major industries, and it has to be the foundation of any meaningful response to climate change. Over the last few centuries since the industrial revolution, the world has depended on “dirty”, non-renewable energy sources like coal, natural gas and petroleum. Today, roughly 80% of global energy is produced by these fossil fuels, leading to environmental destruction through water and air pollution and land degradation. But thanks to major innovations over the last few decades, it has become possible for us to make a transition to cleaner, more sustainable types of energy that will help stop human-caused climate change and hopefully save our planet. New treaties and international bodies have begun requiring countries to make this transition over the next several years. It feels like there is growing global and popular momentum to make some of the major changes needed to save our planet. How could that be bad?
A highly-valuable bluish mineral called cobalt has a huge role to play in this “clean energy transition”. It’s a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars and which store energy in solar panels, two heavy hitters in the green revolution. There is also cobalt in your smartphones and other common appliances, meaning it’s a part of most of our daily lives in some way. 70% of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a large, developing nation in Central Africa where two-thirds of the population are living beneath the poverty line. And a look at cobalt mining in the DRC reveals the hypocrisy of a global movement to improve energy and save the planet being built at the expense of human rights and the environment for people in the DRC. As we fight to save the planet, we also need to fight to protect the human rights of those on the green energy manufacturing supply chain and prevent them from being trampled in our rush to clean energy.
Right now cobalt mining in the DRC is plagued by a crisis of modern slavery, from child labor to labor exploitation. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese people, including children as young as 7 years old, work long, backbreaking hours in dangerous artisanal mines, many earning less than a dollar a day. Even in the large industrial mines owned by multinational mining companies from countries like Switzerland, the USA, and China, Congolese laborers are extremely underpaid and subject to labor rights violations, discrimination, and racism. Ironically, the booming mining industry in the DRC has also caused severe environmental issues in nearby communities as mining waste pollutes water supplies, dust from mined rock toxifies the air, and giant mountains of mining excrement tower over people’s homes. With artisanal miners even digging inside their own homes, mining has caused major health impacts for those exposed.
If you follow the cobalt supply chain, the products being touted as integral to stopping the planet from warming, and as playing a key role in the green revolution, are being extracted through the exploitation of Congolese communities, people and children. None of us should feel comfortable with such a twisted reality, no matter how green your energy consumption is. For those of us who consider ourselves climate activists and say we care about human rights, coming up with a way to right this wrong is critical.
The reasons behind the current situation in the DRC and solutions to this tainted industry are complicated and multi-layered. Millions of Congolese families depend on cobalt for their income and without work in the mines they would be deprived of the ability to feed and house their families. A big reason behind the DRC’s dependence on mineral extraction goes back to its colonial history under the Belgian empire. As noted by activist Maurice Carney in a webinar for Global Justice London, the post-colonial government of the DRC was purposefully designed so that European colonial powers could continue to extract its natural resources even after supposed independence. Today, countries such as the United States and China continue the colonial legacy through their major investments in cobalt mining in the DRC. The Congolese people do not see any real benefit from the resources which belong and are extracted from their country, and that they put their lives on the line to dig up.
So while many have suggested transitioning away from using cobalt in batteries or simply changing suppliers to avoid cobalt mined in the DRC, we need to recognize these actions would come at a devastating cost for the people of Congo. Policy solutions, including robust due diligence supply chain policies are another important way to help alleviate the human rights issues surrounding the cobalt mining industry. But it will take collective efforts, including from you and I, to continue raising awareness, applying pressure on our local and national legislators and finding innovative new ways to solve this systemic problem so that the people of the DRC can benefit from their own nation’s richness.
Young adults like myself face a scary future as the effects of climate change continue to grow each year and become potentially irreversible. However, as we fight to save the planet, we have to consider all who may be affected by the choices and actions we make as part of the process. While a widespread green transition is vitally important, it should not occur at the expense of the Congolese people nor anyone else. But as it stands, those of us in the West reap the benefits of the clean energy revolution and other modern technological advancements, feeling like we are doing the “right thing”. While people in the Congo and Global South not only cannot afford the alternatives to dirty fuels, they continue to suffer under the legacy of outdated extraction laws, forced labor, abuse and exploitation.
To learn more about the history, context and possible solutions to the current exploitative labor policies in the DRC, read the HTS Cobalt Mining and the DRC Report. View and download the report here.