Today marked the 57th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of what is now the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo. This assassination, which took place on January 17th, 1961, was partly sponsored by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and led to decades of political instability that carry on to this day.
After the firing squad shot and killed Lumumba,
his body was dismembered and then dissolved with acid.
Photo of Patrice Lumumba, credit and date unknown.
The region now known as the DRC is home to an estimated $24 trillion worth of natural resources, including the highly useful metal, cobalt. Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries, providing an interface for lithium ions to pass through as they charge and recharge – essentially powering an electric vehicle. The Congo produced over 50% of the world’s cobalt in 2016. However, cobalt is just one of the resources within the Congo of which the rest of the world desperately needs.
In the late 1800s, it was rubber – used in Michelin’s (yes, like the Michelin Man) pneumatic tire that revolutionized automobiles. This invention led to an increased demand of rubber, sourced predominately from the Congo, where countless human rights violations were committed under the Belgian King Leopold II, who controlled the country at the time. It is referred to as the Congo Horrors, with estimates of over 10 million Congolese people being executed during that period. The USA was also the first country to recognize Leopold’s colonial takeover of the region. (source 1, 2).
Next, was the mining of uranium in the first half of the 1900s. The uranium mined in the Congo, which continues to poison young cobalt mine workers today, was used in the first and only atomic bomb ever used in war – the Hiroshima bomb.
Throughout the 20th century, cobalt was also being mined and sourced from the Congo to satisfy the US government’s need for the material in military and spacecraft applications, including bomber jets and space shuttles. (source)
Photo of Cobalt Mining in the DRC – Photo Credit: Marcus Bleasdale
Today, cobalt mining continues in the country to satisfy the increasing global demand for the important metal. This comes at a time when democratic elections remain postponed under the dictator, Joseph Kabila. Some may not refer to him as a dictator, however, when a leader postpones democratic elections that is what they will be referred to here.
All of this is further complicated by the ongoing investigation into the corruption scandal involving the world’s largest mining company, Glencore. This corruption probe was fueled by the ICIJ’s Panama and Paradise paper leaks of corporate off-shore tax haven documents.
The leaks revealed that Glencore, which was founded by the infamous criminal Marc Rich, who was pardoned by Bill Clinton on his last day in office, was involved in corrupt business deals with a billionaire Israeli diamond tycoon, Dan Gertler. Gertler has since been issued sanctions by the US Department of Treasury for his role in the corruption scandal.
Further, the Trump Administration’s recent decision to not enforce conflict mineral provisions of the Dodd Frank Act could complicate an already messy situation. This is in addition to the administration’s pulling out of the Extraction Industry Transparency Initiative – a voluntary initiative for governments and extraction companies that sets guidelines for anti-corruption practices and transparency in reporting.
Taken together, all of this information should at least make you question the social sustainability of continued and expanded mining in the region. Building on the legacy of historical issues and violence is the risk of continued, or even worsened, political instability in a region that has not seen democracy since the US helped assassinate its first democratically-elected leader less than a year after being elected.
Also, if you are considering purchasing an electric vehicle – make sure to consider the product’s potential impact on violence and exploitation in the DRC. See if information is available on the source of cobalt used in the production of components, like batteries. Some companies, including Ford, Daimler, Honda, Volvo, Volkswagen, and BMW are making claims to monitor their supply chains for conflict-related minerals. Merely switching one vice (fossil fuels) for another (mining and exploitation) is not sustainable.