Grey face studded by mineral – stoned, as her pockets bleed:
Cobalt Mining in D.R. Congo

In Earth, Season 2 by Yannick Mutombo

The freezing temperature of water is zero degrees Celsius. Mercury falls below this threshold; water molecules slow and coalesce into one solid structure. Ice will not form unless there is some sort of impurity in the water: specks of soil, bubbles of air. And so, in some cases water can remain in its liquid form at such low temperatures as negative forty degrees Celsius. This is an important thing to remember during the wintery Canadian months, where the temperature commonly falls in the double-negatives in many regions; factor in the windchill and it becomes evident why some people feel caught between a rock and a hard place. What keeps others moving – in the absence of heat, sustainable housing markets, reliable transit – is fear: in a few years, they’ll question if the Great White North was ever really ice-cold baby, ice-cold. Known to free-fall, clouding the atmosphere on days far too foggy on the breath and with too little circulation in the fingers, we used to call them snowflakes, remember?

The climate. The climate is changing. Mass hysteria hastens the headlong frenzy of societal to and fro; many are driven mad. Fast forward to the 2015 Paris Agreement, binding one-hundred and ninety-six international adoptees to cap global warming at less than two degrees, come up with long-term strategies to divest from fossil fuels, and achieve carbon neutrality – net-zero – by 2050. But what to make of our money systems? Capitalism has a short temper.

Globally, more than a billion passenger cars circulate the streets and roads; we pay for it in greenhouse gas emissions, (an exorbitant price when you factor in the meat industry and dairy farming). Not to mention, the actual price of gasoline. The demand for oil is growing exponentially. Due in part to the reopening of countries which closed their borders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and more recently, the ongoing war in Ukraine – The European Union has called for a cut off of Russian fossil fuel exports to weaken Russia’s power over international economies in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Now, worldwide shortages are driving up oil prices, giving people one more reason to explore alternatives to motor vehicles.

The modern electric car gained popularity in the United States of America. By 1990, California implemented the Low-Emission Vehicle Program to reduce the emission of smog-forming pollutants. The state created several categories to label motor emissions like hydrocarbons and CO2, pressuring car manufacturers to invest in the production of lower and zero emission vehicles, including electric models. By 2004, the Tesla Roadster became the first of its kind to be legally driven on the highway. In Japan its counterpart became the 2009 Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and by 2010, the Nissan Leaf was a national bestseller. 

We see things ramping up in the 2010s. China enters the market, swiftly placing itself amongst the world’s top competitors by incentivizing automakers to make generous use of special government offerings. The decade progresses, efforts to curb global greenhouse emissions and divest from fossil fuels intensify, all the while, the lithium-ion battery – favored for its incredible power and energy density – is being perfected behind the scenes. Today, it can be found in most electric cars.

I won’t try to break down the specifics of how the batteries work. I am not a scientist and my knowledge of engineering boils down to speculation. But for simplicity, we’ll say it involves the laws of power, dynamics raging in silence within the machine. Tesla, the leading electric car company with over one million sales of the Model 3 in June 2021, assembles its batteries both in Storey County, Nevada, and Grünheide, in the Brandenburg state of Germany. Components include, but aren’t limited to, lithium sourced in Argentina, cobalt extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cars are in demand in markets where climate fears are high, solidified even to withstand cultural distractions; people avert their eyes – the reflex is to navel-gaze. In these places, reports of progress are often inflated by technological determinism; never mind what happens in the dark, someone will whisper, no harm no foul. Canada, the CBC writes, “may have reached a turning point” in moving away from internal combustion vehicles, as the country enters into “a technological and social revolution that has been compared to going from horse to automobile and will bring affordable electric cars and trucks to roads and parking spaces across Canada.”

Most cobalt production happens in the industrial mines of Congo. However, more than 100,000 people participate in artisanal small-scale mining (ASM), a practice that involves individuals extracting minerals independently using their own resources, producing around one third of the country’s total output. They make the discovery of a rich cobalt reserve,then deep pits are dug – some reaching 20 or 30 meters in depth –  where miners spend hours underground. Tunnel collapses, fires and deaths are frequent. The cobalt is sold to Chinese merchants who upsell to larger companies in China before the material gets treated to build lithium-ion batteries. Artisanal cobalt mining is commonly one’s only source of income.

The dangers of cobalt mining aren’t limited to the people risking their lives to extract it from the Earth. Extraction sites are coasted by towns and villages, where the means of production are damaging the environment and altering people’s biologies. In Katanga, scientists have established a correlation between cobalt extraction and swelling reports of babies born with birth defects. It is now a routine procedure for doctors to question pregnant patients about where they live and what they do for work. 

Dr. Sébastien Mbuyi Musanzayi is a pediatric maxillofacial surgeon at University Hospital in Lubumbashi. He has over fifteen years of experience performing surgeries on children born with congenital malformations. In a segment for Al-Jazeera’s “The Cost of Cobalt” documentary, he performs a checkup on a family with two young children born with cleft palates.

“We found that there were links between mining activities and the occurrence of auto facial clefts for example. And for that we found that fathers or mothers who are working in mining companies are sometimes three or four times at risk to have children with auto facial clefts.”

Oftentimes, his patients have no clue that working in or living next to a mine can bring consequences to their health, let alone contaminate their unborn child. Beyond cleft palates, the staff at University Hospital are treating newborns with spina bifida, organs outside the body, and such serious complications that the baby’s life cannot be saved. Nurses are all too familiar with these cases and can name a handful of mining areas that are commonly home to many of the mothers they see.

Alarming trends led to the start of a new system in hospitals across DRC. If a baby is born with a congenital malformation, they must contact Dr. Musanzayi’s team at University Hospital. He meets with the families and collects data that could link birth defects to cobalt mining.

Not far from the hospital’s grounds, the toxicology department, lead by professor Célestin Banza Lubaba Nkulu, has been researching the effects of mining pollution for over ten years. Together with the University of Leuven in Belgium, they are documenting the consequences of cobalt extraction activities on human health. The goal is to understand which pathways are involved, and what illnesses are a direct result of exposure.

So far, they’ve established that extraction methods are mainly responsible for the pollution to the environment, as dust particles are blown into the surrounding landscape. There is also smoke, and wastewater from the treatment process tainting drinking water sources and food crops.

This past January, Doctor Musanzayi and Professor Nkulu published an article to mobilize their findings on congenital malformations in populations with exposure to the cobalt mining industry. Several months prior, Nkulu co-authored another about environmental pollution by trace metals in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Concurrently, there were efforts to notify government officials and protect the vulnerable public by mapping areas with high levels of pollution and identifying their origin. The subsequent tool being the Incidence of Congenital Malformation, which confirms that 300km away from Katanga, in Lubumbashi, hospitals situated near cobalt mines report five times more birth defects than in areas with no active mining. 

Cobalt mining is an international affair, and harm reduction requires the attention of not just Congolese experts. In 2017, NGOs, government reps, academics, and leading organizations with stakes in ASM cobalt mining formed the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), with representation from over ninety parties. Their goal is to create sustainable cobalt supply chains and make responsible sourcing be the standard by the year 2030. Under the GBA Guiding Principles, extraction frameworks should “safeguard human rights and economic development consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals” with measures that protect public health and the environment. The GBA’s ASM Cobalt Management Framework outlines a set of environmental, social, and governance implementations that are necessary to formalize ASM cobalt mines and establish a threshold standard of acceptability for sourced material.

Some miners, however, express their concerns with these formalization initiatives. More specifically, that implementation will begin in ASM sites that already have above average working conditions – buyers could turn away from doing business at sites with the poorest standards, which in turn, could coerce those workers to resort to the black market to make up potential losses. By leaving out low performing areas in the initial overhaul, the gap in working conditions could potentially widen. Additional input from locals was collected and published by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In Katanga, Mutoshi Mine was once the working ground of thousands of illegal miners, many of them children. Today, it is regulated by the Shelf Corporation; plans to build a mechanised mine are in the works. In the meantime, working in the company’s pit means the artisanal miners no longer risk their lives, and children are banned from the premises. It’s a step in the right direction. Congolese miners deserve better material circumstances – yes – but with each incremental reform, I can only wonder if we are missing the forest for the trees. Making cobalt mines less dangerous also strengthens the cobalt extraction industry, and this means more pollution, more health problems for unsuspecting families, all to lower greenhouse gas emissions that are largely produced by North American consumerism. Under a capitalist framework, our efforts to combat climate change negates the impact on perpetually overexploited nations.


 Grey face studded by mineral, home to many cobalt deposits: the Copperbelt sits at the junction of northern Zambia and southern Congo – stoned, as her pockets bleed. The Lamba people, deriving from the Luba Kingdom, were the first to inhabit the region in pre-colonial days; their copper jewelry famously documented by Americans who scouted central Africa in the late 1800s – artifacts, they were later coined; a red hand closes for barter. Wrist retreating through loophole, the assailant tightens his fist. 

Had I a dime for every empire once crumbled, I’d know the price of labour by the sounds of ground crunching, the cost of living by their maps; led walking astray, beyond such land with no peacekeepers, many fallen bridges, ahead remains largely unforgiving.