Cobalt mining kills

This semester I am taking a class on the Sociology of Energy and Society. It focuses mainly on how humans interact with forms of energy. We recently watched a documentary in this class, Blood Cobalt, which focuses on the mining going on in the Congo for cobalt. I recommend everyone to go and watch this documentary, because it truly was eye opening. 

The documentary majorly focused on “artisanal mining,” meaning, mining done by the locals, or, “…freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labor for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day.” This mining is quite dangerous because it often means people are using self-made holes to mine that can easily collapse, and a lot of the people participating in this dangerous task are children. According to Reuters, “Congo accounts for three-quarters of the world’s mined cobalt supply. Industrial mines produce most of Congo’s cobalt, but “artisanal” miners, who dig by hand and often die when tunnels cave in, account for up to 30% of production, though that fluctuates depending on price.” Accepting cobalt from artisanal miners, specifically cobalt that has been mined by children, is very illegal, and breaks several laws that these big cobalt companies are supposed to abide by, such as child labor laws. Siddharth Kara, who has studied mining in the Congo, tells NPR, “There are probably 10,000 to 15,000 tunnels that are dug by hand by artisanal miners. None of them have supports, ventilation shafts, rock bolts, anything like that. And these tunnels collapse all the time, burying alive everyone who is down there, including children.” Kara further tells NPR, “I met people whose legs had been amputated, who had metal bars in where their legs used to be,” and, “…mothers pounding their chests in grief, talking about their children who had been buried alive in a tunnel collapse.” The cobalt mining industry is an industry that has ravished so many.

“I met people whose legs had been amputated, who had metal bars in where their legs used to be.”

Siddharth Kara

So, why is such dangerous work continuing? Well, seemingly, cobalt is the element of the future. Cobalt is used in the production of many modern technologies, such as smartphones and even electric vehicles. And as countries try to shift to cleaner energies, cleaner transportation, electric cars will likely become even more popular, and thus so will cobalt. 

Scientifically speaking,“Cobalt is a metal element (symbol Co) that is found in the Earth’s crust, though not often by itself: in most cases it is a by-product of nickel and copper mining. Cobalt is used in the creation of EV batteries “…because it is both very energy dense, meaning it can handle lots of electricity relative to the amount used, and because it has excellent heat-resistant properties, which is important from a safety perspective.”  Therefore, “…cathodes in lithium-ion batteries are comprised of between roughly 10% and 30% cobalt, with each EV needing between six and 12kg of the element.” This is not a small amount, and soon, the amount that needs to be mined is highly likely to increase. 

And unfortunately, there isn’t a wide variety of options for the Congolese people outside of mining. “The mines have taken over everything. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced because their villages were just bulldozed over to make place for large mining concessions.” 

Siddhartha Kara told NPR, “…these stories never get out of the Congo. People just don’t know what’s happening down there,” and I want to make sure that changes. These are the stories that need to be heard and shared, so action and policy can be created and executed on behalf of these people. What’s happening there is a humanitarian horror story, and as someone who promotes feminist values of sticking up for marginalized people, I cannot ignore it. 

Because, how green is “green energy” if it comes at the exploitation of vulnerable people? 

2 thoughts on “Cobalt mining kills

  1. This was super interesting! I am currently in an ISAT Sustainability class and we touch on topics such as this one. However, we haven’t talked about cobalt specifically, so this was super cool to be able to relate this to what I’ve learned in class.


  2. I am not someone who knows a whole lot about cars or electric vehicles, so I had no idea that Cobalt was such a large resource for this energy source. It is extremely disheartening to hear about this issue and how it has been almost swept under the rug by cobalt companies, so I thank you for bringing it to light! I will definitely have to check out the Blood Cobalt documentary.


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