Saturday, October 01, 2016

la fleur du cobalt

Right from when I was a kid, I have always worried about how guilty I should feel.  As I wrote in this essay, one of my earliest lessons on this was when I realized that I was eating candies when across from me were kids my age who were begging.  I have been leading a life since then of trying to convince myself that I don't have to feel awful about everything around me.

But then that realization is also why I do what I do.  In my role as a university instructor, as an op-ed writer, as a blogger, I am able to get at least a few other people to think about the terrible stuff that is all around us and hope that as our collective awareness grows we can also address the human suffering.  

Yesterday's post was Syria.  Today, it is about Congo.  The huge country in the middle of a huge continent.  How huge is the Democratic Republic of Congo?  Think about Western Europe.  About two-thirds of Western Europe can fit into Congo.  

It is a country that is a sorry mess now.  Has been messed up for a long, long time.  And whether or not we care about the country, we are all intricately connected to it.  Here is one more way we are: Cobalt.  "60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo."

Cobalt. Who cares, right?
[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.
Without cobalt, you and I won't be in communication here--we would not have our laptops and smartphones.  Smartphones have five to ten grams of cobalt in them, while a laptop has about an ounce, the report says. "Cobalt is the most expensive raw material inside a lithium-ion battery."

Of course, this is not the first time that I am blogging about Congo.  Remember this post from a few months ago, on King Leopold's Ghost?
Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half -- as many as 8 million Africans (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild's opinion) lost their lives.
Some were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold's agents. Some were worked to death, forced to labor in slavelike conditions as porters, rubber gatherers or miners for little or no pay.
Some died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold's army rampaged through the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields.
A country that is rich in all kinds of resources, which is why the rest of the world has been messing around there for a long time.  Cobalt is merely the latest :(
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.”
In the past year, a Dutch advocacy group called the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations, known as SOMO, and Amnesty International have put out reports alleging improprieties including forced relocations of villages and water pollution. Amnesty’s report, which accused Congo DongFang of buying materials mined by children, prompted a fresh wave of companies to promise that their cobalt connections were being vetted.
But the problems remained starkly evident when Post journalists visited mining operations in Congo this summer.
We mutter. We shake heads. We move on.  How awful!

So, why la fleur du cobalt in the title?  In the report, you will read about the tragic irony.  I urge you to read the entire piece, which is a phenomenal piece of investigative journalism.  And watch the videos there. And spread the awareness.  You and I could do at least that much.


Ramesh said...

Yes, a superb piece of investigative journalism. Its been excellently written - fair and factual without trying to demonise or sensationalise.

Going off on a tangent on two issues your post trigerred in my thoughts.

Firstly, how far back in the supply chain should companies go to police work practices. How far is it feasible to go. Here Apple buys batteries from some suppliers. Fair enough that Apple is responsible for practices at its suppliers. After the Foxconn incidents, Apple has tightened up massively - today its at the forefront of demanding adherence from suppliers and auditing them relentlessly.

The battery suppliers source battery parts from other suppliers. The battery parts supplier sources cobalt from the open market. That comes from Zhejianh Huayou. They buy the cobalt from these miners featured in this story. How far back in the supply chain can Apple be reasonably expected to police. Not sure. I don't have an elegant answer, but its a thorny issue.

The second area to explore is the social responsibility of Chinese multinationals. European companies led the way in taking responsibility for the conduct of their external partners in the supply chain. American companies followed suit. But the Chinese are far far away from what would be considered acceptable. When I first started working in China, I was appalled at the situation concerning the responsibility with which companies behaved inside China, leave alone in other countries. It was the Wild Wild West, and I am talking just 10 years ago. I shuddered at labour rights, environmental responsibility, ethical practices, etc etc. Even Indian business, which is hardly a saint, was miles ahead. Chinese companies, when they go overseas are even less responsible. Given their increasing dominance in global supply chains, it needs a very concerted push by a whole host of bodies, including governments, to drive the ugly face of capitalism out of Chinese companies.

Anne in Salem said...

We may participate in a global economy, but many people have a very limited outlook. They can't see beyond their family, their job, and their entertainment. They don't care how the entertainment happens, just that it does. Africa is too far away to merit a moment of most people's days. I'm not saying this is right, just that it is reality.

How do we get people to care? No idea. I can't even get my kids to pick up their shoes.

Sriram Khé said...

"European companies led the way in taking responsibility" is an exaggeration to the nth degree because you are choosing to present only the latest few years of their business stories. Prior to that, they were no different from the Chinese companies that practice a kind of capitalism that left/leaves you appalled. It is crazy that we all take turns messing up with nature, with those who are in abject poverty, ... the Congolese have been messed up by everybody including, in recent years, their own government.

So, given all these, "How do we get people to care?" ... Ignorance I can understand. We don't know until somebody points it out. The apathy after that is what worries me. Education in so many avenues--even the Oprah show, for instance--can make us aware. But, after that ...? Many, many social issues suffer from our collective apathy more than anything else. There is nothing we can do about apathy. But, that does not mean that I will stop making students think about stuff--I do it fully knowing that an overwhelming majority simply won't care. Such is life :(

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