The Democratic Republic of Congo has almost half the world’s known supply of cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries used in everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles. Locals do anything they can to get this “buried treasure”, says Nicolas Niarchos in The New Yorker. “Artisanal diggers”, or creuseurs, break into pits at night or dig their own holes and tunnels. When one town mayor tried to restrict digging during the “cobalt rush” in 2014, he was pelted with rocks and forced to flee. The town ended up with more than 1,000 holes, some up to 100ft deep – including one that collapsed the main road running west to Angola.
The “dark side” of the DRC’s cobalt industry is truly grim. Whole neighbourhoods are forcibly rehoused to make space for new pits. Child labourers as young as three “pick out the purest ore” and sift through mining materials. “The prostitution of women and young girls is pervasive.” Tunnel collapses and cave-ins are all too common: after a landslide in 2019 that killed more than 40 creuseurs, people sneaked back in to continue digging the next night.
Many of the mines now have Chinese owners, and supervisors have been videoed beating workers. As one former child creuseur said: “I have sadness in my heart when I think of people who buy the minerals. They make so much money, and we have to stay like this.”
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