/ 29 November 2023

Unearthing oppression in the DRC’s cobalt mines

Cobalt Mining Under Poor Conditions In Democratic Republic Of Congo
Shadow world: Workers, including women and children, work in an artisanal cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in July. Cobalt is an important component of rechargeable batteries used in electronic devices. (Photo by Augustin Wamenya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

I explained to Jean and Pathé that I had come to the Congo to understand the nature of artisanal mining as part of a research project and that I was curious to explore some of the remoter mining sites in the mountain wilderness. They were surprisingly supportive of my request, perhaps out of a sense of boredom, because it seemed that they did little other than sit in their offices all day. They told me they would need to make some phone calls, so I left them to it. 

I was later informed that they had received permission to take me to one industrial gold mine deep in the mountains, called Kimpese, and also to one artisanal mining site located on the way to Kimpese. Permission, however, had only been granted for the three of us. The trip to Kimpese was the only one I took to a mining area without a guide I trusted. It did not go as planned. 

Jean and Pathé picked me up the following morning in a midsize SUV. Jean was lean with deep-set eyes and had the habit of biting off the end of each word as he spoke. Pathé was shorter, more deliberative, with a strong chin and narrow cheeks. They were both Lubumbashi natives and graduates of the University of Lubumbashi. They explained that Kimpese was located just over 30 kilometres south of the highway. The plan was to go first to Kimpese and then tour the artisanal mine on the return journey.

“There is a small village on the road about halfway to Kimpese. From that village, we can walk approximately one kilometre to reach the artisanal zone,” Jean explained. A few kilometres west of Kambove we peeled onto a dirt road heading south. 

To call it a “dirt road” would be akin to calling the Congo a democratic republic. It was even harder to navigate than the path Arthur and I took to get to the artisanal mining area where we were run off by commandos. It was more like a track of jagged rocks, deep holes, and mounds of dirt unfit for vehicular passage. Our pace slowed to a grind as we ploughed through the terrain. 

A few patches of flat earth offered momentary reprieve to our battered spines. “It is not possible to take heavy machinery to Kimpese,” Jean explained. “You will see only small equipment for excavation.” 

Weighty issue: Miners weigh bags of cobalt at a depot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two-thirds of the world’s supply is located in southern DRC.

I asked how many people worked at the site. Jean said there were 3 000 people at Kimpese and that they dug “through artisanal techniques”. I took the risk of asking whether there were any children working at Kimpese. 

Without hesitation, Pathé replied, “Yes, there are children.” 

“How many?” 

They did not know. 

I was surprised that a SAEMAPE [the Service for Assistance and Supervision of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining — a government agency] official admitted to the existence of child labour at a formal mining site, especially since most government employees that I met took great pains to deny or diminish the existence of child labour in artisanal mining. 

One senior parliamentarian in Kinshasa once told me that the international community was mistaken about the issue of child labour at artisanal mines in the Congo. According to him, they were actually Pygmies. 

As we drove deeper into the mountains, the sense of remoteness and isolation intensified. There was absolutely nothing to be seen except rock, dirt, and trees.

 I asked where such a large population of people working at Kimpese might live. “There are villages in the mountains,” Pathé responded. “Some people also live at the mine itself.” 

“Who pays them for the work they do?” 

“The army pays them.” 

I asked what the army did with the production from the mine. On cue, a cargo truck with Chinese markings packed with sacks of ore barrelled down the dirt road in the opposite direction. We had to swerve into the brush to avoid a collision. 

As the truck rolled by, Pathé pointed to it and said, “The Chinese companies have arrangements to buy most of the ore from the army.” 

After more than an hour of bumps and jolts, the SUV started to make a loud grinding sound. We stopped, and Jean climbed under the vehicle to inspect the problem. He discovered a large stone jammed into the axle. We tried for about 30 minutes to dislodge it, but it would not budge. 

I asked how much farther it was to Kimpese, and Pathé estimated 15 or 16 kilometres — too far to hike. The village near the artisanal mining area that we had been authorised to visit was another kilometre or two down the road, so we decided to head there. 

Pathé pulled out a satellite phone and made a call asking for another vehicle to meet us in a few hours. As we walked down the dirt road through the mountains, all was silent save for the wisps of white-hot air blowing through the trees. The breeze was completely absent of moisture. 

No sooner did I blink than did the film on my eyes evaporate like mist on hot coals. We arrived at last in a small village that consisted of 30 open-air wooden huts with thatched roofs along the western side of the road. Immediately behind the huts, the terrain dropped sharply into a valley. On the other side of the road, thick forest sloped up a steep hill face. 

The village had no electricity, and the only source of water was a well at the far end of the settlement, tucked between two jacaranda trees. A lone child, maybe three years old, wearing a pale brown frock, shuffled languidly across the dirt staring at her feet. Behind her, two soldiers sat on plastic chairs. They wore the distinctive uniform of the Republican Guard — military fatigues, black boots, and red berets. 

There were several piles of stuffed raffia sacks next to them. They manned a makeshift péage crossing that consisted of a long wooden pole propped across the road by two vertical branches at either end. At 10 dollars, it was the most expensive toll crossing I encountered in the mining provinces. 

There were only a handful of women and children in the village when we arrived. Most of the inhabitants were out digging at the artisanal mining area. At closer inspection, the huts appeared to be more like dorms that housed two or three families each, which suggested that a few hundred people lived in this isolated settlement. 

I asked Jean and Pathé if it would be possible to speak with some of the villagers before we hiked to the artisanal mining site. They seemed reluctant but settled on a single interview. After speaking with a few of the women in the village, they selected a young mother named Marline. 

We met inside her hut and sat on the dirt. The belongings of the families that shared Marline’s hut consisted of three plastic containers of water, one large plastic bowl, a stack of manioc, metal pots for cooking, knives and cutlery and clothes piled in two corners. There was a small, faded poster of Jesus on one of the walls, along with numerous spiderwebs in the corners of the hut. A short, brown lizard clung to one of the walls and stared at the motley collection of visitors. 

Marline was 20 years old and held a baby in her lap. She wore a faded red skirt and a green blouse. Her hair was cut short, and she spoke in a soft, mossy voice. Although she was sitting only two feet in front of me, I knew there were several impenetrable barriers between us. 

A worker packs bags containing cobalt hydroxide at the Mutanda industrial mine, one of the large industrial copper-cobalt mines in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Lualaba province, June 19, 2023. (Photo by Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

First, she had been selected by Jean and Pathé. Although they had admittedly been forthcoming about the fact that there were children at Kimpese, they might still have selected someone they knew would say what they preferred to be said. Jean and Pathé were also present in the hut and would translate from Swahili as they saw fit.

Marline would also bear in mind the presence of the Republican Guard when determining what she should and should not say. Finally, I was well aware that I had to spend the remainder of the day with Jean and Pathé and that we were down to just one site visit since Kimpese was out of the question, so I too had to be judicious about the questions I asked lest they determine it would be better to return to Likasi and alert others that I was not to be trusted. 

I began by asking Marline where she was from. She said that the people living in the settlement were all from a village not far from Kambove. She explained that the villagers “came with the army” to the settlement to work in nearby mining areas. She normally went to the mining site each day, but her daughter had been sick recently, so she was staying in the village to tend to her. 

I asked how the artisanal system worked at the village. Marline said that the villagers usually worked all day at the mine and carried back sacks of cobalt before it was dark. Each Saturday, a truck came to the village to load the sacks. They were given a weekly wage by the buyers of 15 000 Congolese francs (about $8.30) for men and 10 000 (about $5.50) for women. 

Items they paid for the previous week from town, such as flour, cooking oil, vegetables and beer, were also brought at that time by the buyers. I asked who the buyers were. Marline said it was usually the army. 

A crowd of women and children from the village, as well as the two Republican Guard soldiers, had started to congregate around Marline’s hut while we were speaking. Jean and Pathé did not seem keen to continue talking with an audience, so they suggested that we should start hiking to the mining site. 

As I stood up, I looked over at Marline and her baby and wished I could find a safe place to ask her the questions I really wanted to ask: Did the villagers have a choice when they came here with the army? How many other settlements like this were there in the mountains? Did the soldiers use violence to make them dig? Were they free to return to their home villages if they wished to? What happened if they were injured at the site? 

With each passing day in the Congo, my list of unanswered questions only seemed to grow. 

We embarked on our march up the incline through the trees toward the artisanal site. The forest was dry and sharp, but our passage was eased by a narrow path that the villagers had trodden to and from the mining area. 

We had proceeded no more than 10 minutes when we heard the first gunshot. Two more shots followed in quick succession. Brisk footsteps came crunching through the brush. The Republican Guard soldiers from the village were racing toward us. 

They spoke in firm and escalating tones to Jean and Pathé, then continued swiftly up the hill. “There has been an accident,” Jean said. “What happened?” 

“A boy fell. His head hit a stone.” 

“Is he okay?” 

“He is dead.”

The army was closing off the area. We were ordered to leave. Jean and Pathé took me straight to the hobbled SUV without stopping in the village on our way back. When their colleagues arrived with the second vehicle, I returned with Jean to Likasi while the others worked to repair the SUV. 

I inquired the next day if it might be possible to try again to see Kimpese or perhaps some other artisanal site in the mountains, but permission was not forthcoming. I never managed to return to the remote wilderness near the Zambian border, nor in any depth to the hills around Likasi and Kambove. But I saw enough to conclude that there was a secret world of artisanal mining hidden in these hills that operated in an even more oppressive manner than the more visible sites like Kipushi and Tocotens.

Thousands of tons of cobalt were being fed from this shadow economy into the formal supply chain by a ragged population in conditions that at times were next of kin to slavery.

Cobalt Red is published by Pan MacMillian. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Siddharth Kara is an author, researcher and activist on modern slavery. He is a British Academy Global Professor and an associate professor of human trafficking and modern slavery at Nottingham University in the UK.