It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo Dong Fang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers.
The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products.
Apple told The Post that it now supports including cobalt in the law. “And it’s met with much muttering and shaking of the head and tuttering — and goes away again.” In the past year, a Dutch advocacy group called the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations, known as SOMO, and Amnesty International have put out reports alleging improprieties including forced relocations of villages and water pollution.
Congo’s cobalt trade has been the target of criticism for nearly a decade, mostly from advocacy groups. Amnesty’s report, which accused Congo Dong Fang of buying materials mined by children, prompted a fresh wave of companies to promise that their cobalt connections were being vetted.
The sun was rising over one of the richest mineral deposits on Earth, in one of the poorest countries, as Sidiki Mayamba got ready for work. And the red-dirt savanna stretching outside his door contains such an astonishing wealth of cobalt and other minerals that a geologist once described it as a “scandale geologique.” This remote landscape in southern Africa lies at the heart of the world’s mad scramble for cheap cobalt, a mineral essential to the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles made by companies such as Apple, Samsung and major automakers. Pyers also said Apple is committed to working with Huayou Cobalt to clean up the supply chain and to addressing the underlying issues, such as extreme poverty, that result in harsh work conditions and child labor.
But Mayamba, 35, knew nothing about his role in this sprawling global supply chain. Another Huayou customer, LG Chem, one of the world’s leading battery makers, told The Post it stopped buying Congo-sourced minerals late last year.
Following the path from mine to finished product is difficult but possible, The Post discovered.
The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions.About 90 percent of China’s cobalt originates in Congo, where Chinese firms dominate the mining industry.The cobalt begins its journey at a mine such as Tilwezembe, a former industrial site turned artisanal operation on the outskirts of Kolwezi where hundreds of men scour the earth with hand tools.Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. He also acknowledged problems with mining-related deaths and pollution.Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices. But, he said, his government is too poor to tackle these issues alone. “These companies have an obligation to create wealth in the area where they operate.” Companies are unlikely to abandon Congo, for a simple reason: The world needs what Congo has.
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But the problems remained starkly evident when Post journalists visited mining operations in Congo this summer.