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Book Summary: Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara

My Personal Summary

Cobalt is used in every single rechargeable battery for smart phones, tablets, and electric vehicles.

It turns out that the Katanga region in the southeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo holds more reserves of cobalt than the rest of planet combined.

It also turns out that about 30% of total cobalt production comes from individuals who work in horrible, unsanitary, dangerous conditions and live in extreme poverty, only earning about $1 per day.

This book reveals the dark side of how cobalt, one of the most highly valued minerals in the world, is actually mined from the earth by people in the Congo who are equivalent to modern-day slaves.

Book Notes

  • “There is a frenzy taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a manic race to extract as much cobalt as quickly as possible. This rare, silvery metal is an essential component to almost every lithium-ion rechargeable battery made today.”
  • Cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries for smart phones, tablets, and electric vehicles. The increased demand for these consumer goods has only lead to increased demand for more cobalt.
  • 75% of all of the world’s cobalt is mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • “The titanic companies that sell products containing Congolese cobalt are worth trillions, yet the people who dig their cobalt out of the ground eke out a basic existence characterized by extreme poverty and immense suffering.”
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is rich with natural resources. Examples include ivory for piano keys, crucifixes, false teeth, and carvings (1880’s), rubber for car and bicycle tires (1890’s), palm oil for soap (1900s+), copper, tin, zinc, silver and nickel for industrialization (1910+), diamonds and gold for riches, uranium for nuclear bombs (1945), tantalum and tungsten for microprocessors (2000s+), and cobalt for rechargeable batteries (2012+).
  • Despite having copious amounts of mineral resources, the people of the DRC don’t benefit from it. About 75% of people in the DRC live below the poverty line, only 25% have access to clean drinking water, and only 9% have access to electricity.
  • Once cobalt is extracted, it must be refined to be usable. Unfortunately, the DRC doesn’t have sufficient electricity capacity to refine cobalt so it is often sold to buyers in China who end up doing the refining and thus bring in revenue that could instead remain in the DRC.
  • The cobalt deposits in the DRC are very shallow, which is what makes it possible for individuals to dig it up using only shovels.
  • Most individuals who work in the mines are paid only $1-2 per day.
  • Cobalt is toxic to touch and breath and the ore it comes in often contains traces of radioactive uranium.
  • If individuals could sell the cobalt directly to depots (facilities that buy cobalt) then they could earn a higher profit, but you must have a license to transport cobalt and the fee to obtain this license is often too expensive for individual diggers to afford. This further reinforces their poverty.
  • At individual mines the author visited, he frequently saw children as young as six digging for cobalt and often saw teenage girls digging with infants strapped to their backs.
  • The author spoke to one woman who said she had two miscarriages with her husband but said “I thank God for taking my babies. Here it is better not to be born.”
  • Studies have shown that artisanal miners have elevated levels of cobalt, lead and uranium in their blood, which are all associated with a variety of negative health side effects including increased cancer rates, seizures, vomiting, neurological damage and reduced fertility in adults.
  • Although heavy machinery is used to extract cobalt in many places, the work of artisanal miners (e.g. individuals with shovels) accounts for about 30% of global cobalt extraction. It’s beneficial for companies to use these individuals because they provide close to free labor.
  • Another advantage of artisanal mining is that individuals are able to use more precise tools to dig out only the valuable ore and leave the useless dirt and stones in the ground. By contrast, industrial mining involves using heavy machinery that just digs up everything, smashes it into tiny pieces, then processes it to extract the minerals of value. Industrial mining produces higher volumes of minerals but artisanal mining produces higher quality of minerals.
  • Much of the air, soil and water is polluted in villages near the mining areas, which means the local people are consuming toxic air, food and water even if they aren’t directly working in the mines.
  • When the author asked one woman washing stones about the purity of the water they used, she said “the lake is poison. It kills the babies inside us. Mosquitoes do not drink the blood of the people who work here.”

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