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D.R. Congo: Dirty Metals for Clean Energy - The Green Line

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The world is on the precipice of the new revolution in Green Technology, but where do the materials for this Green Tech come from? One of the primary materials required for everything from smartphones to electric vehicle batteries is cobalt, a silvery-gold looking mineral found primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


The DRC holds the vast majority of the world's cobalt; as a result the country has become a vital part of the global supply chain but how safe is that? Are we betting the entire future of Green Tech on a country already barreling toward war, floods, and civil conflicts? We ask our panel of experts.


This is Part Four of our special five-part series focusing on The Geopolitics of Climate Change.

 

Episode Overview:


Part 1: Traps, Collapse, and Relapse (5:11)

  • Jason Stearns provides us with an introduction to the DRC, including the forging of a national identity over the decades to create the nation we know today. He describes the geography and trade flows of the enormous state, including vital food and fuel supplies.

  • We discuss the bloody First and Second Congo Wars, estimated to have been caused 5.4 million deaths between 1998 and 2003, and the lack of international invention created in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide and the US withdrawal from UNOSOM II in Somalia.

  • We note the escalating tensions between DRC and Rwanda today and the prospect of another conflict breaking out, with Stearns detailing the groups at play and their differing motivations.

Part 2: The Hard Sell for a Vital Hell (29:40)

  • Ben Radley walks us through the dependence of the world on cobalt mined from DRC, and how integral the mineral is to a range of vital technologies.

  • Radley details how cobalt mining in the country is split between larger-scale industrial mining operations and smaller scale, independent operators supporting a significant number of Congolese.

  • We also discuss the existence of child labour in this supply chain, and dive into efforts to clean up the cobalt supply chain, noting the policy failures of conflict diamond regulations in recent years.

  • With the international community increasing dependent on DRC for cobalt, as well as copper, we discuss the prospect of increased international engagement and presence in central Africa.

Part 3: The Silver Lining from Harmful Mining (43:30)

  • Bossissi Nkuba weighs up the benefits and costs of mining to DRC, noting the infrastructure development that has come from mining and the benefits that have been realised for some regional communities.

  • We discuss the limits of mining licences and regulations in helping to improve conditions in DRC, noting the varying approaches to enforcement across provinces and the complexity of intersecting actors in each geographical area.

  • With demand skyrocketing, we talk about the potential for DRC to expand and realise larger export volumes of cobalt through better organisation and infrastructure.

  • We also discuss the threats to this progress, including corruption within the DRC army, border conflicts, and external actors seeking to exploit the situation.

Part 4: To Deplore or Ignore? (1:03:46)

  • Emilia Columbo breaks down the complexity of the security situation of DRC and the potential to draw in many neighbouring African nations into a potential future conflict.

  • We discuss the lack of infrastructure within DRC creating significant barriers to development and international investment into mining, as well as the risk of climate events such as flooding setting back progress on the ground. We try to identify partners and pathways towards achieving such potential progress.

  • We discuss the potential for Rwanda to escalate the situation in DRC and unpack what Kigali's motivations and aims would be in pursuing this pathway.

  • We talk about the potential for China to provide their own security forces, either Chinese or through PMCs, to protect its mining interests if the DRC army would be unable or politically unsuitable domestically.

  • We also explore why some segments of DRC's population have appealed to Russia as a potential partner to improve security and economic development, and how an increased Russian presence may impact international engagement with DRC moving forward.

 

Episode Guests:


Jason Stearns

Ben Radley

  • Political Economist and Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath

  • His research centres on processes of economic transformation in Central Africa, with a focus on labour dynamics and the role played by Northern corporations

  • Author of the upcoming book Disrupted Development in the Congo: The Fragile Foundations of the African Mining Consensus

Bossissi Nkuba

  • Associate Professor of Natural Resources at the Center of Expertise on Mining and Environmental Governance (CEGEMI) of the Catholic University of Bukavu

  • He led the national assessment of the socio-economy of DRC’s artisanal and small-scale gold mining and its use of mercury, and the development of DRC’s ASGM National Action Plan 2020-2035

  • His recent research has includes artisanal cobalt mining in Katanga (DRC), child labor in copper mining (DRC), and water pollution in Ethiopia

Emilia Columbo

  • Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa Program

  • Senior Security Risk Analyst for VoxCroft Analytics

  • Previously, she served as a senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, covering African and Latin American political-security issues

 

The Red Line's DRC and Cobalt Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of DRC and essential minerals like cobalt.

Books:

The Looting Machine: Warloads, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth

Tom Burgis


Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives

Siddharth Kara

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

Jason Stearns

 

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This production was brought to you by The Red Line and Mission Climate Project.