Man at His Best

The Real Cost Of The Smartphone In Your Pocket

Let's talk about the cobalt miners in the Congo.

BY Charles P Pierce | Oct 8, 2016 | Technology

Getty + Per-Anders Pettersson

Sometimes, we have to learn how very much our new globalised economy—to say nothing of our advanced techno-happy lifestyles—ultimately are carried on some very small backs. The Washington Post went to the Congo to take a look at where the great chain of profit and convenience begins. The 21st century lifestyle begins in a place that looks very much like the 17th century.

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. But Mayamba, 35, knew nothing about his role in this sprawling global supply chain. He grabbed his metal shovel and broken-headed hammer from a corner of the room he shares with his wife and child. He pulled on a dust-stained jacket. A proud man, he likes to wear a button-down shirt even to mine. And he planned to mine by hand all day and through the night. He would nap in the underground tunnels. No industrial tools. Not even a hard hat. The risk of a cave-in is constant. "Do you have enough money to buy flour today?" he asked his wife. She did. But now a debt collector stood at the door. The family owed money for salt. Flour would have to wait.

The world's soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labour 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.

The chain that begins with people digging deeply into the Earth with hand-tools not very far removed from those that the original inhabitants of Africa used to crush grain and butcher the day's kill ends, as such things usually do these days, with a single company, a Chinese firm that the Post says pretty much has cornered the market on cobalt mined in this manner, and thence to companies like Apple, and thence—OMG! LOL!—to your pocket. But the whole thing begins with people who get up before dawn and dig in the earth with their bare hands.

Congo's cobalt trade has been the target of criticism for nearly a decade, mostly from advocacy groups. Even US trade groups have acknowledged the problem. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition—whose members include companies such as Apple—raised concerns in 2010 about the potential for human rights abuses in the mining of minerals, including cobalt, and the difficulty in tracking supply chains. The US Labour Department lists Congolese cobalt as a product it has reason to think is produced by child labour. Concern about how cobalt is mined "comes to the fore every now and again," said Guy Darby, a veteran cobalt analyst with Darton Commodities in London. "And it's met with much muttering and shaking of the head and tuttering—and goes away again."

There are people of good will working to alleviate the suffering of the people at the beginning of the chain. But they are people of this century dealing with the problems of a mining culture that is barely removed from the medieval. Meanwhile, the economic model that this culture maintains is moving away from the mines at a dizzying pace.

Diggers don't have mining maps or exploratory drills. Instead, they rely on intuition."You travel with the faith believing that one day you can find good production," said digger Andre Kabwita, 49. Nature is said to be one guide. Yellow wildflowers are considered a sign of copper. A plant with tiny green flowers carries the telling name "la fleur du cobalt." 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. The diggers are desperate, said Papy Nsenga, a digger and president of a fledgling diggers union. Pay is based on what they find. No minerals, no money. And the money is meager—the equivalent of USD2 to USD3 on a good day, Nsenga said.

They call this "artisanal mining," which is as cruel a bit of jargon as I've ever heard. Read the whole thing. Watch the video. In fact, watch it on your phone.

From: Esquire US.