Monday, July 15, 2024

How The Democratic Republic of Congo has been Driving the Automobile for Centuries

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been ongoing since 1998 and has taken a devastating toll on the country and its citizens. The conflict is fuelled by a number of factors, including mineral resources, geopolitical interests, and ethnic divisions. It has resulted in an estimated 5.4 million deaths, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in modern history. The war has had far-reaching consequences for Africa as a whole. It has destabilized the region and caused immense suffering for innocent civilians caught up in the conflict. It is also seen as an example of how powerful nations can exploit weaker ones for their own gain, with mineral resources being at the heart of this exploitation. The green revolution has increased the focus on the DRC as a main supplier of the raw materials that go into our electric batteries. We use those batteries for all things electric cars. Cobalt is an essential mineral used in the production of electric batteries, that are integral to creating an environmentally friendly automobile.  As demand for electric vehicles rises, so too does the need for cobalt. 

Extracting cobalt from these mineral deposits requires sophisticated technology and a deep understanding of the geological conditions of the area. This process has been dangerous and damaging to the environment. On top of that are all the human costs of war involved in the cobalt supply chain. To end the world’s deadliest conflict It is important that all stakeholders involved take responsible steps to ensure that cobalt extraction is done safely and sustainably. Yet the DRC continues to be a place that infringes on the human rights of those who live there. 

How The Democratic Republic of Congo has been Driving the Automobile for Centuries

The Congo Free State & Rubber

The mining of cobalt is a recent trend in Congo, but centuries before the first electric car there was rubber. The production of rubber in the Congo has been a source of violence and exploitation since the time of Belgian colonialism. Rubber production in the Congo has been closely linked to the country’s history, with Belgium taking control of the region in 1908 and introducing a system of forced labour to extract rubber from its forests. This system led to extreme violence, with people being beaten, tortured, and killed for not meeting quotas. Even after independence was achieved in 1960, rubber production continued to be a major source of conflict in the Congo.

When tiny Belgium colonized Congo they controlled an area over fifty times their size, a whole 1/13th of all of Africa. At first, the vast land in central Africa was the personal property of the Belgian King Leopold. The story of the human abuses in colonial Congo under Leopold was made infamous by the book King Leopold Ghost. The book goes into detail on the slave-like conditions in the rubber production colony. The structural violence Leopold unleashed was so severe almost half the nation was killed during that period. After newspapers and officials saw all the abuses Leopold introduced the Congo Free State was put into the government’s hands. The Belgian government did nothing to stop the rubber production system and kept many of the same abusive conditions that Leopold introduced. 

Eventually, lower rubber prices rearranged the production system in Congo and the colonial authorities switched to mining copper and other minerals in the Katanga province of southern Congo.

How The Democratic Republic of Congo has been Driving the Automobile for Centuries

Independence & Geopolitics

The DRC is one of the largest and most diverse nations on Earth. While colonial authorities would use violence to coerce and force labourers into plantations and mines after independence new tools were needed if companies were to continue to have access to the Congo’s vast resources. A major aim of Western companies and nations was violence through division. By highlighting significant differences between the many peoples of Congo western nations were able to continue the same colonial practices after independence. 

One method of division was cessation. After the election of Patrice Lumumba, a charismatic and well-loved leader, different stakeholders schemed to deprive the people of their democratic choice. While Lumumba was neither a devout communist nor a capitalist he had closer relationships with the USSR and was keen to nationalize the natural resources of the country. Afraid to lose access to the vast minerals in the southern province of Katanga officials from Belgium, along with the white population in Katanga threw support for Katanga succession. According to the University of Calgary’s Toyin Falola:

“Of all the provinces, it (Katanga) held the closest relationship to the Belgians”

When efforts to secede failed the CIA, local groups and the Belgian government tortured and assassinated the country’s first elected leader Patrice Lumumba. Following his death the country was ruled by Mobutu, a man of legendary corruption. After thirty years of his rule, another coup took place when governments in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda helped rebel groups depose Mobutu and placed Laurent Kabila as president from 1997 to 2001 at which point his son Joseph took over.

Cobalt is the new Rubber

One of the largest changes in the DRC is the introduction of a new player: China. The resource-hungry superpower has poured billions of dollars into the DRC in exchange for mineral rights. Former DRC President Kabila (2001-2019) negotiated a deal in 2008 which saw Congolese cobalt and copper exchanged for infrastructure construction by a Chinese consortium. The deal is worth $6 billion yet to date, nearly $2.74 billion has been disbursed by the Chinese party, mostly in the form of investments. Chinese companies act largely as middlemen in the cobalt supply chain. It is Chinese companies that buy cobalt for artisanal miners and then manufacture them into batteries for Western companies.

How The Democratic Republic of Congo has been Driving the Automobile for Centuries

Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and at the Kennedy School, has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labour for two decades. He says that although the DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined, there’s no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country. In his new book, Cobalt Red, Kara writes that much of the DRC’s cobalt is being extracted by so-called “artisanal” miners — freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labour for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day.

While Western companies may officially sign agreements for a fairer supply chain t