In my blog article last March I gave an update on my further research into Coltan (Columbite Tantalite), a ‘conflict mineral’ whose importance in modern technological devices has fueled a bloody civil war that to date has resulted in around 6 million deaths in central Africa. A 2010 U.S. law requires American companies to attempt to verify that any ‘conflict minerals’ such as tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold they use is obtained from mines free of militia control in the Congo region. The result is a system widely seen as preventing human rights abuses.
But to believe that these conflict minerals are the only problem is an inaccurate picture of the global reality. On the first of October, Todd C. Frankel, following on site investigative research, wrote an article in The Washington Post entitled, “Africa’s Cobalt Pipeline: Where Your Mobile Phone Starts,” in which he shows how this mineral, not listed as a ‘conflict mineral’ contributes equally to the violence, poverty, exploitation and suffering of the people of the Congo. In this article I’ve reduced Frankel’s long 15-page article to 6 pages, to make it more accessible. The tragedy of the Congo is that it is an incredibly rich source for these minerals that have found central importance for the technology boom. In particular, Frankel points out, it lies at the heart of the world’s mad scramble for cheap cobalt. 60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo — “a chaotic country rife with corruption and a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources.”
Why is Cobalt important? Because it is 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.
The global interest in lithium-ion batteries is that they are seen to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for moving beyond petrol run vehicles. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices. Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical.
Cobalt is the most expensive raw material inside a lithium-ion battery. The price of refined cobalt has fluctuated in the past year from $20,000 to $26,000 a ton. Worldwide, cobalt demand from the battery sector has tripled in the past five years and is projected to at least double again by 2020. This increase has mostly been driven by electric vehicles. Every major automaker is rushing to get its battery-powered car to market. Tesla’s $5 billion battery factory in Nevada, known as the Gigafactory, is ramping up production. Daimler aims to open a second battery plant in Germany soon. LG Chem makes batteries for General Motors at a plant in Holland, Mich. Chinese company BYD is working on huge new battery plants in China and Brazil.
While a smartphone battery might contain five to 10 grams of refined cobalt, a single electric-car battery can contain up to 15,000 grams. As demand has grown, so has the importance of ‘artisan’ (diggers) mined Cobalt in global markets. Artisan mining has taken a big place in the supply chain. Artisanal cobalt is usually cheaper than product from industrial mines. Companies do not have to pay miners’ salaries or fund the operations of a large-scale mine. Indeed, with cheap cobalt flooding the market, some international traders canceled contracts for industrial ores, opting to scoop up artisanal ones.
The industry should be a boon for a country that the United Nations ranks among the least developed. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is being met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.
With few formal sites to claim for themselves, artisanal miners dig anywhere they can. Along roads. Under railroad tracks. In back yards. When a major cobalt deposit was discovered a few years ago in the dense neighborhood of Kasulo, diggers tunneled right through their homes’ dirt floors, creating a labyrinth of underground caves. Other diggers wait until dark to invade land owned by private mining companies, leading to deadly clashes with security guards and police.
Pay is based on what they find. No minerals, no money. And the money is meager — the equivalent of $2 to $3 on a good day. Deaths happen with regularity too, but only mass casualties seem to filter out to the scant local media, such as the U.N.-funded Radio Okapi. Thirteen cobalt miners were killed in September 2015 when a dirt tunnel collapsed in Mabaya, near the Zambia border. Two years ago, 16 diggers were killed by landslides in Kawama, followed months later by the deaths of 15 diggers in an underground fire in Kolwezi.
The U.S. Labor Department lists Congolese cobalt as a product it has reason to think is produced by child labor. No one knows exactly how many children work in Congo’s mining industry. UNICEF in 2012 estimated that 40,000 boys and girls do so in the country’s south. A 2007 study funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development found 4,000 children worked at mining sites in Kolwezi alone. Local government officials say they lack the resources to address the problem.
Doctors at the University of Lubumbashi already know miners and residents are exposed to metals at levels many times higher than what is considered safe. One of their studies found residents who live near mines or smelters in southern Congo had urinary concentrations of cobalt that were 43 times as high as that of a control group, lead levels five times as high, and cadmium and uranium levels four times as high. The levels were even higher in children. One study the university doctors published in 2012 found preliminary evidence of an increased risk of a baby being born with a visible birth defect if the father worked in Congo’s mining industry.
How such serious problems could persist for so long, despite frequent warning signs, illustrates what can happen in hard-to-decipher supply chains when they are mostly unregulated, low price is paramount and the trouble occurs in a distant, tumultuous part of the world.
The Washington Post traced the cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products. It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining (CDM), part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. It is this company that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers.
Apple, in response to questions from The Post, acknowledged that this cobalt has made its way into its batteries. Apple estimated that 20% of the cobalt it uses comes from Huayou Cobalt. Paula Pyers, a senior director at Apple in charge of supply-chain social responsibility, said the company plans to increase scrutiny of how all its cobalt is obtained. 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. Some say cobalt should be added to the conflict-minerals list, even if cobalt mines are not thought to be funding war. Apple told The Post that it now supports including cobalt in the law.
For most artisanal miners in Congo, the global supply chain begins in a marketplace. Small shops, known as “comptoirs,” are stacked cheek by jowl along the highway that leads to the border. The artisans bring heavy sacks of their diggings and each load is tested by a radar-gun-like device called a Metorex, which detects mineral content. The higher the content of cobalt, the better the price. Miners do not trust the machines, believing them to be rigged, but they have no alternative.
There are many shops, but all sold to the same company: Congo DongFang Mining. The Post reported that Congolese workers, in jumpsuits with CDM printed in block letters on the back, stood watching other men loading cobalt sacks from these shops onto a truck. Later, The Post followed the truck until it reached an entrance with armed guards and turned inside. The facility with big blue walls was clearly marked CDM.
It was at these same gates that CDM says its inspection of its supply chain had stopped, never extending to the mines or marketplace. Last year, CDM reported exporting 72,000 tons of industrial and artisanal cobalt from Congo, making it No. 3 on the list of the country’s largest mining companies, according to Congolese mining statistics. And CDM is by far Congo’s top exporter of artisanal cobalt, according to analysts and the company.
CDM ships its cobalt to its parent company, Huayou, in China, where the ore is refined. Among Huayou’s largest customers are battery cathode makers Hunan Shanshan, Pulead Technology Industry and L&F Material, according to financial documents and interviews.
These companies — which also buy refined minerals from other companies — make the cobalt-rich battery cathodes that play a critical role in lithium-ion batteries. These cathodes are sold to battery makers, including companies such as Amperex Technology Ltd. (ATL), Samsung SDI and LG Chem.
LG Chem, the world’s largest supplier of electric-car batteries, said the company it buys cathodes from, L&F Material, stopped using Congo-sourced cobalt from Huayou last year. Instead, it said, Huayou now supplies L&F Material with cobalt mined from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. As proof, LG Chem provided a “certificate of origin” to The Post for a cobalt shipment in December 2015 for 212 tons. But two minerals analysts were skeptical that LG Chem’s cathode supplier could switch from Congo cobalt to minerals from New Caledonia — or, at least, do so for long. LG Chem consumes more cobalt than the entire nation of New Caledonia produces, according to analysts and publicly available data.
Cleaning up the cobalt supply chain will not be easy for Huayou Cobalt, even with the support of a powerful company such as Apple. The question is whether Huayou’s other customers, after years of buying cheap cobalt with no questions, will be supportive.
Starting next year, Apple will internally treat cobalt like a conflict mineral, requiring all cobalt refiners to agree to outside supply-chain audits and conduct risk assessments. Apple’s action could have major repercussions throughout the battery world. But change will be slow. Apple spent five years working to certify that its supply chain was free of conflict minerals — and that action was enforced by law.