World View: Cobalt for Apple iPhones Means More Money for DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila

People work at the Kalimbi cassiterite artisanal mining site north of Bukavu, in Democratic Republic of Congo, on March 30, 2017. In the lush hills of eastern DR Congo, where the trade in rare minerals has long fed unrest, miners complain that recent US rules against "conflict minerals" have bitten …

This morning’s key headlines from

  • DR Congo’s corrupt leader, Joseph Kabila, seeks to cash in on rise in cobalt prices
  • Tanganyika province in DR Congo faces a humanitarian disaster of ‘extraordinary proportions’
  • Thousands of children work as cobalt miners in DR Congo

DR Congo’s corrupt leader, Joseph Kabila, seeks to cash in on rise in cobalt prices

About 40,000 children, some as young as five years old, work as cobalt miners in DR Congo (Sky News)
About 40,000 children, some as young as five years old, work as cobalt miners in DR Congo (Sky News)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced last month that it would increase the royalty on cobalt exports from to 10 percent from 2 percent. The new taxes would be paid by international mining firms operating in DRC, including African miner Randgold Resources, China Molybdenum Company Limited, Swiss firm Glencore plc, and MMG Ltd, an Australian-Chinese venture.

However, these four multinational firms will be challenging the royalty increases in court, based on a contractual relationship with DRC that locks in the 2 percent rate and can only be changed with ten years notice.

DRC is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, providing 58 percent of global production. Other countries produce far less, including, in decreasing order, Russia (5 percent), Australia, Canada, Cuba, Philippines (3.6 percent), Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Zambia and New Caledonia (2.5 percent).

Demand for cobalt has been surging because it is an essential ingredient of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in iPhones and other devices. And a big additional surge is expected in the next three years to provide for rechargeable batteries in electric cars. A typical smartphone uses about 8 grams of refined cobalt, while the battery for an electric car requires over 1,000 times more. The result is that cobalt prices more than doubled in 2017.

In order to protect its supply of cobalt, Apple Inc. is in talks to buy long-term supplies of cobalt directly from miners, such as Glencore. Until now, Apple has left the business of buying cobalt to the companies that make the batteries. Apple is seeking contracts to secure several thousand metric tons of cobalt a year for five years or longer.

However, other companies are believed also to be trying to lock up cobalt supplies. Thus, Apple will be in competition with companies like BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and Samsung SDI Co. AFP and Investing News and Bloomberg

Tanganyika province in DR Congo faces a humanitarian disaster of ‘extraordinary proportions’

It seems that there is no end to the list of horrific stories about Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the past, I have written about the bloody wars in the southwestern Kasai region, where the armies and militias reporting to the government of President Joseph Kabila are committing genocide; about the bloody tribal wars in northeastern Kivu region, causing massive refugee flows into Uganda; about the massive corruption of Joseph Kabila, skimming billions of dollars out of the treasury and providing it to his family and cronies; and of his repeated stunts of refusing to hold elections, so that he cannot be replaced as president.

Now there is a new horrific story. In southeastern DRC in Tanganyika province, there is a growing “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions,” according to the UN. There have been bloody clashes between militias of two ethnic groups – the Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, and the Twa, a Pygmy ethnic group. The violence has been going on for four years and surged in mid-2016, with killings, abductions, and rapes. Since January of this year, most of the violence has been perpetrated Kabila’s Congolese armed forces at roadblocks.

Tanganyika province is three times the size of Switzerland with a population of about 3 million, of whom 630,000 have been displaced by the fighting, a number that has almost doubled in a year.

A report by the International Rescue Committee describes the situation in detail, and provides the following historical context:

The conflict in Tanganyika is rooted in the long-standing marginalization of all the indigenous ethnic groups commonly referred to as Pygmies in central Africa, of which the Twa form one of the main groups. The Pygmies were the first inhabitants of the DRC, living as nomadic hunter-gatherers at the fringes of forest-savanna areas. However, Bantu tribes, primarily relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, started migrating into the Congo River Basin at the beginning of the first millennium, progressively displacing Pygmies toward ever more remote forest areas. Over time, the Bantu exerted their control over land and established hereditary, hierarchized and interrelated tribal power structures that excluded Pygmies.19 These tribal or customary power structures still underlie to this day the configuration of local governments in DRC, especially at the village and cluster levels, along with chiefdoms. This also explains in good part the absence of the Twa from positions of power in Tanganyika.

During colonial times and since independence, the cutting of forests for logging, agriculture, cattle herding, and mining, combined with the creation of national parks, gradually pushed the Pygmies out of forests. This resulted in an accelerating trend toward sedentary life for those populations. Sedentarization, accompanied by a significant reduction in access to forest resources, and limited access to land, has resulted in systematically higher poverty for Pygmy populations relative to the Bantu majority. Unsurprisingly, this led the author of a World Bank report to summarize their situation in this manner: “Pygmies in DRC can best be described as poor, vulnerable and marginalized.” This higher poverty and vulnerability also characterize the situation of the Twa in Tanganyika.

In Tanganyika, the majority of the Twa population is sedentary or semi-sedentary. They are typically settled near roads and Bantu villages, where they can work as agricultural day laborers and maintain some access to forest resources. While some Twas have fields and practice agriculture, land rights in DRC remain rooted in the customary practices of Bantu chiefs. As a result, the Twa have limited access to land that is contingent on Bantu customary village chiefs allocating land in exchange for a customary tax (typically a variable share of the annual crop). Bantu customary chiefs also collect similar taxes for hunting, fishing or artisanal mining activities.

The phrase “pushed out” can be assumed to be a euphemism for dozens of bloody generational crisis wars that have been going on for almost 2,000 years, according to the report. Pygmy groups such as the Twa are at an enormous disadvantage in these wars because they are shorter than their Bantu enemies. It appears that a generational crisis war is going on at the current time, but that cannot be confirmed without a great deal of additional historical research.

It seems likely that what is tying the situation in Tanganyika together with the story about cobalt is that Kabila is looking for new money with which to buy weapons to kill people or to provide to his family and cronies. The United States has threatened to cut off aid to DRC if there are no presidential elections this year, and Kabila may be using the cobalt tax as a way of replacing the aid. Reuters and Al Jazeera and International Rescue Committee

Thousands of children work as cobalt miners in DR Congo

UNICEF estimates that about 40,000 boys and girls, some as young as five years old, work as cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some dig holes and go down into the pits, while others work above ground, sifting through leftover rubble and rock, searching for bits of ore which they then sort and wash. Many children become extremely ill from inhaling the dust from mining.

Most of the mined cobalt is sent to China, where it is used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries which are then sold to companies like Apple and Samsung. Sky News and Amnesty International (June 2016)

Related Articles

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, Joseph Kabila, cobalt, Glencore plc, MMG Ltd, Randgold Resources, China Molybdenum Company Limited, Apple Inc., BMW AG, Volkswagen AG, Samsung SDI Co., Luba, Bantu, Twa, Pygmy, Tanganyika province
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