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The Inconvenient Truth About “Clean” Energy — Siddharth Kara

The Inconvenient Truth About “Clean” Energy — Siddharth Kara

Real Talk: The Charles Mizrahi Show podcast

The Inconvenient Truth About “Clean” Energy — Siddharth Kara

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Dr. Siddharth Kara is a British Academy Global Professor and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He’s also an author, researcher, and activist on modern slavery.

His latest book is Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.

Cobalt is an essential component to every lithium-ion rechargeable battery — those are the batteries that power our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and electric vehicles.

His book “Cobalt Red” is the first-ever exposé of the immense toll taken on the people and environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by cobalt mining.

I recently sat down with Siddharth and he told me that roughly 75% of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Congo, often by peasants and children in subhuman conditions. And why we must all care about what is happening in the Congo, and what we can do about it.

Topics Discussed:

  • An Introduction to Siddharth Kara (00:00:00)
  • The Dark Truth About Congo’s Cobalt Mining (00:01:59)
  • The Danger of Artisanal Mining (00:10:06)
  • China’s Role in Congolese Mining (00:21:32)
  • Electric Vehicles and Environmental Destruction (00:27:36)
  • Why Children Are Being Forced to Mine Cobalt (00:35:07)
  • How Easily the Problem Could Be Fixed(00:39:00)
  • The Harsh Reality of Life in the Congo (00:47:25)
  • Big Tech Driving Demand for Cobalt (00:55:47)
  • From Blood Diamonds to Blood Cobalt (01:02:51)
  • It’s Time to Challenge Congress (01:07:27)

Guest Bio:

Siddharth Kara is a British Academy Global Professor and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He’s also an author, researcher, and activist on modern slavery.

His latest book is Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.

Cobalt is an essential component to every lithium-ion rechargeable battery—those are the batteries that power our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and electric vehicles.

His book “Cobalt Red” is the first-ever exposé of the immense toll taken on the people and environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by cobalt mining.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

Charles Mizrahi: My guest today is Dr. Siddharth Kara. Siddharth is a British Academy Global Professor and a visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He’s also an author, researcher and activist on modern slavery.

His latest book is Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. Cobalt is an essential component to every lithium ion rechargeable battery. Those are the batteries that power our smartphone, tablets, laptops and electric vehicles.

His book, Cobalt Red, is the first ever expose of the immense toll taken on the people and the environment of the Democratic Republic of Congo by cobalt mining.

I recently sat down with Siddharth and he told me that roughly 75% of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Congo, often by peasants and children in sub-human conditions, and why we must all care about what is happening in the Congo and what we can do about it.

Siddharth, thanks so much for coming on the show. After I read your book it really kept me up at night. Folks, the name of the book is Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. Siddharth, this was a book that not only did you describe something that most people have zero idea about, but the passion that you wrote this book in and the pain is quite evident.

Siddharth Kara: There’s an enormous horror taking place in the heart of Africa. It’s impossible to bear witness to that horror without there being a great deal of intensity of emotion and empathy for what the people in the Congo are enduring in order to support our rechargeable lives.

Charles: Let’s back up on step here. The Congo, out of all the places on Earth, has been blessed with I think 75% of the world’s supply of cobalt.

Siddharth: Yeah. The Congo is teeming in resources. It’s been the great curse of the Congo for centuries. It is home to more reserves of cobalt than the rest of the planet combined.

Charles: Why is there such a demand for cobalt?

Siddharth: Cobalt is used in lithium ion rechargeable batteries. Cobalt is used in almost every lithium ion rechargeable battery made in the world today. So that’s just about every smartphone, tablet, laptop, rechargeable gadget and, crucially, electric vehicle. Almost all of them require cobalt in their batteries.

That’s what’s placing enormous demand to get cobalt out of the ground and up the chain into our gadgets and cars.

Charles: So every time another iPhone is sold – and I’m just pointing it out because I have one in my hand now – the lithium battery that I’m so happy with the long life this battery has and I don’t have to recharge it as much, I have to thank cobalt for that?

Siddharth: Precisely. Cobalt is so vital for these batteries because it allows them to hold maximum energy density while remaining thermally stable. What does that mean? That means you can hold the most possible charge in that battery without it catching on fire.

That’s what we want, right? We don’t want to plug in our phones three times a day or our laptops three times a day. Or, certainly, an electric vehicle – if we buy them – we want driving range. Cobalt is what allows the battery to hold that energy and not catch on fire.

Charles: Okay. So the Congo is literally ground zero for all this cobalt – or 75% of the world’s cobalt. How is it mined?

Siddharth: It’s mined in conditions akin to colonial pillage. Cobalt is mined in conditions that would hearken back centuries. Not just in terms of technique, but also the degradation of human life and the destruction of the environment.

Now, there are industrial mines operating in the Congo using big excavators and heavy machinery to pull cobalt out of the ground. But there are also hundreds of thousands of women, men and children, so-called “artisanal miners” – a ridiculous term that belies the horrors and horrible conditions in which they scrounge for cobalt.

They use pickaxes, shovels, rebar, or their bare hands to scavenge cobalt out of the ground and sell it to the formal mining companies and then up the chain into our gadgets and cars. Cobalt, by the way, is toxic. Toxic to touch, toxic to breath.

Every one of these hundreds of thousands of people, including children, including the babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, are inhaling toxic cobalt dust every day. Touching it. Breathing it. It’s an utter degradation of human life, quite apart from the enormous environmental destruction.

Millions of trees have been clear cut. Mining companies dump toxic industrial effluence into the earth, the air, the water. So the entire mining provinces of the Congo have been completely contaminated, environment destroyed and people destroyed to feed cobalt up the chain.

Charles: How long has this been going on?

Siddharth: Since the dawn of the cobalt battery revolution. 2008/2009 is when things started. You remember the iPhone came out in 2007, Android phones the following year, tablets. I think the first iPad was 2008 or 2009. That sort of kicked off this cobalt battery revolution.

Imagine the billions of gadgets that have been sold or purchased by us in that period of time. Every one of those batteries required cobalt. But things have really exploded in terms of demand for cobalt with the transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles.

The battery packs in the average electric vehicle can require up to 10 kilograms of refined cobalt each, which is about 1,000 times what you need for a smartphone. As you see the world transitioning toward electric vehicles to pursue important climate sustainability goals, there’s been very little to no attention paid to the conditions at the bottom of those supply chains.

Namely and especially cobalt in terms of the destruction of the people and the environment in the heart of Africa.

Charles: How did you get into this? I don’t want to give away the book; I’d rather hear it from you. You heard about this problem and I want you to take it from there for us.

Siddharth: I’ve been doing research on modern day slavery and child labor for almost 23 years now in dozens and dozens of countries. About 2015, 2016 I started hearing some stories from colleagues in the field. “Siddharth, you have to go to Congo. The cobalt mining is really bad. It’s really bad and it’s all the batteries.”

I remember thinking, wait, cobalt? I thought it was a color. I had no idea what cobalt was, that it was a crucial battery component metal, that it was mined in the Congo. I didn’t know anything about the Congo. It took me a couple years to plan my first trip, which I took in 2018.

I was prepared to see some pretty bad conditions. I have seen child labor and slavery around the world in horrific conditions at the bottom of other supply chains. So I was prepared. I had experience with slavery and the degradation of human beings at the bottom of supply chains.

But what I saw on that first trip exceeded the most dark nightmares I could have conjured. It was an absolute hellscape. It’s like the moral clock had been dialed back to colonial times. An entire population of people working in grinding and degrading conditions, suffering injuries, shattered bones, toxic contamination, being buried alive in wall and tunnel collapses.

All for a dollar or two a day in income, by the way. In addition to that, all the environment destruction. It was like a scene from millennia ago. Then it was happening in the 21st Century at the bottom of trillion-dollar supply chains. It left me unable to comprehend what I had witnessed.

Now with the benefit of repeated trips and a deep understanding of what’s happening, let me say this, in the entire history of slavery and colonial pillage there has never been an instance of greater human degradation that generated more profit at the top of the chain and touched the lives of more people around the world than what is happening right now with cobalt in the Congo.

Charles: Artisanal mining. What are we talking about? How much percent of the world’s mining and mines are being dug with rebar? You mentioned rebar and hammers.  How many people are we talking about? What percentage of the labor pool is doing this?

Siddharth: If you take a step back and look at what’s called artisanal mining around the world – again, this term is ridiculous. It makes you think of people baking bread or something. But it’s one of those things that stakeholders at the top of the chain do. They choose words that sort of soften or utterly misrepresent the truth, the reality.

There’s nothing quaint about what’s happening. If you take a step back, about 90% of the world’s mining workforce is so-called artisanal miners. That’s people digging with their bare hands in toxic, hazardous conditions. That’s children. That’s babies on their mothers’ backs.

It’s everything that’s not supposed to be happening in the 21st Century to people who are working at the bottom of the global economy. 90%. That’s all the stuff we mine: copper, gold, nickel, lithium, manganese and, of course, cobalt. It’s being scrounged out of the ground by some of the poorest people across the global south.

In the case of Congo and cobalt, you have hundreds of thousands of people. It’s impossible to know how many, but hundreds of thousands of people who are contributing at least a third of all cobalt production coming out of the Congo. The Congo is three-fourths of global production.

So we’re talking a substantial portion of the world’s supply of cobalt being scrounged out of the ground by human beings in colonial, degrading, slave-like conditions.

Charles: So you went there, boots on the ground, you went. How were you able to get into these areas? I’m assuming the mine owners – and you gotta tell me who the mine owners are – do they want the public to know this? Wouldn’t they have guards and threaten you or anyone else?

Siddharth: No. This is all supposed to stay hidden. That’s where slavery thrives is in the shadows of the global economy. Tucked away, out of sight, underneath, buried deep underneath layers of marketing puffery put out by companies at the top of the chain that their supply chains are untainted by human rights abuses.

But I got into the Congo and this was now 18 years into my journey of documenting slavery and child labor in other very dangerous and challenging conditions. So I had an experience base to draw upon. The first thing I knew to do was to establish trusted ground relationships. 

I can’t just fly into the Congo and start walking around mines without getting shot. So I had to build trusted ground relationships, people who live and work in mining communities. Through them, I was able to gain access into artisanal mining areas and industrial mining areas to document what’s happening.

Most industrial mines are guarded by the army or private military also known as militias with Kalashnikovs and machetes. Artisanal mining areas are also often under militia control. So it’s a pretty hazardous area. The point of all that armament, all that violence, is to keep prying eyes out because the truth of what’s happening is not supposed to escape the Congo.

Because then it’s a big PR problem for tech and EV companies. They are building these fortunes and they’re pedaling us these products that, at least in some part, are contributing to enormous violence against some of the poorest people in Africa.

The research had to be done very carefully, very cautiously. There are some places I never saw, even after repeatedly going to the Congo, because it was just too heavily guarded. It was impossible to gain access. In those cases I would talk to people who worked in those areas and take their testimonies.

But there are many mines that I went to. Industrial mines, artisanal mining areas, hundreds of them, to see exactly what was happening.

Charles: Describe to me what a mine looks like. Are there trees around it? Is it guarded? Is it in a nice, tucked away area? Are there heavy machineries? Paint the picture for me.

Siddharth: You have to imagine an apocalypse. The compete destruction of Earth. There are no trees. When we’re talking big, open pit industrial mines, millions of trees have just been clear cut. I never met anybody who could say they saw one tree being planted to replace them.

Those people and their earth don’t count the same as us and our earth. You have to imagine just millions of trees clear cut. The earth gouged and dug up and excavated for miles around. When I say miles, let me be clear, the largest mining concession – cobalt and copper – in the Congo is the size of London.

You have to imagine an entire city size of earth being destroyed to feed battery metals up the chain. Tens of thousands of people would have lived in that area before the mining company came in. Their huts would have been bulldozed. They would have all been kicked out.

This is what’s happening. The local population is being pushed to a cliff’s edge as big mines keep excavating, growing and growing. So then people have no place to live, no way to work, no place to survive. So they go by foot into the mining areas to dig up cobalt because they know they can get a dollar or two that day.

That’s the difference between eating and not eating. It’s not just the destruction, it’s the entire hellscape of earth, it’s also the violence committed against people. Displacing them, disadvantaging them. There’s no way to survive except to risk your life digging for cobalt.

The whole atmosphere is this toxic brown haze. Your eyes burn as you walk around. You can feel this grit in your throat. The mining companies are just spitting out toxins. They wouldn’t do it in their own countries, but it’s OK to do it in Africa. So it’s a bleak apocalypse on the ground.

There are no birds in the sky. There are no nice streams. There are flowers. There are no ornaments of nature. Everything has been obliterated in this mad scramble to feed cobalt up the chain.

Charles: And children. How old are the children that are mining for cobalt?

Siddharth: Children as young as six years old are in these toxic pits. Some of the more difficult work like digging tunnels requires more strength, so it’s teenage boys and grown men. But surface digging just with your bare hands or a small, little spade, young children 6, 7, 8 are digging at the surface, slowly filling up a sack.

You also have young girls who rinse stones in little ponds or toxic pools of water to get the dirt off to fill the sack little by little so by the end of the day they’ve got a 40 kilogram sack of cobalt bearing stones that they can sell for a dollar or two.

Charles: For the whole bag. For 80 pounds of rock they are getting a dollar?

Siddharth: Yeah, a dollar or two depending on which part of the copper belt they are in. That’s the mining area in the Congo. And what the grade of the cobalt is in the stones they’ve collected. They’ll get a couple dollars at most or a dollar or sometimes even less than that.

It’s not like they have access to markets or bargaining power. They sell to these intermediaries, most of whom are Chinese buyers, and those intermediaries sell that same sack of cobalt right to the big Chinese mining companies where it gets mixed in with their production before it ever leaves the Congo.

This is important. This is important for everyone to understand. When a tech or EV company tells you, “We buy our cobalt from ABC Mining Company and there’s no artisanal production at ABC Mining Company. So don’t worry about child labor issues. Don’t worry about all this stuff Siddharth is talking about or any other journalist is talking about. We buy from ABC and ABC is clean,” it’s a fiction.

Number one, there are always invariably artisanal miners, including children, digging inside ABC Mining Company. No matter what anyone tells you, on the ground, that’s what you see. Number two, all that artisanal cobalt goes where? It’s not dug for sport. It’s sold to those same mining companies and mixed in with their industrial production before it ever leaves the Congo.

So there’s no way to disaggregate which cobalt came from a tractor and which cobalt came from the hands of a child.

Charles: Wow. It’s totally untraceable. Once it goes into the system it’s totally lost. And everyone walks away clean and saying it’s not child labor, it’s not slavery, it’s not from this mine. There’s no way to track this stuff.

Siddharth: Well, they walk away and claim it’s clean, but it’s tainted and caked in the destruction of human life, including children. In the violation of their human rights, in the destruction of the Congolese environment. How can it be that those people over there and their environment can be destroyed in order to support our rechargeable lives and our transition to renewable energy in the case of electric vehicles?

How is that even remotely acceptable? It’s an utter hypocrisy. No, they are not clean. The clean that they claim isn’t even a micron deep. Underneath all that fictional nonsense about clean cobalt and untainted supply chains is the truth on the ground.

The truth is there for any of them to see if they took the time to actually go to the Congo and see where their cobalt is coming from. It’s all mixed up before it ever leaves the country.

Charles: Who owns these mines in the Congo? Is it the Congolese government? Is it foreigners? Who gave them permission to build these mines? Their permits?

Siddharth: Most of the mines, most of the big mines, are run by Chinese mining companies. There’s about probably 19 major industrial mining concessions in the Congo in the copper belt region of the Congo. That’s the southeastern corner where all the cobalt is.

It’s called the copper belt because that’s what was originally discovered by Belgian prospectors back during the colonial time in the early 1900s. Copper down there almost always has cobalt attached to it. Now the cobalt is what’s very valuable.

There are about 19 big mining concessions. Remember, these are as big as cities. Then there are hundreds and hundreds of areas where the local population digs. About 15 of the 19 big industrial mining concessions are owned by Chinese mining companies.

Charles: They must have gotten there early and saw how cobalt was such a vital mineral.

Siddharth: You’re exactly right. Chinese government back in 2009 saw the future before anyone else did. They signed an agreement with the former president, Joseph Kabila, to provide aid in exchange – actually loans, in exchange for access to mining concessions. That opened the door.

Then Chinese companies just swarmed in. There was a lot of corruption at that time for those deals. The Kabila family, it’s now well known, they walked away with large sums of money just parceling out these mining concessions to Chinese mining companies, as well as the other main mining company there, Glencore, a Swiss-UK based company which is under any number of investigations for fraud, bribery and corruption in the Congo.

I think they’ve even settled a couple of them for hundreds of millions of dollars. So corruption was the way things were done. The former regime of Joseph Kabila pocketing large sums of money to say to take a city-sized chunk of territory and tear it apart.

Before anyone knew what was happening, China swooped in. Now everyone is playing catch up because they dominate the supply chain from dirt to battery for the entire rechargeable economy.

Charles: The people have no recourse. They can’t go to the government. They can’t go to the corporations. Chinese corporations, human rights are not something the Chinese are known for. What do these people do? They just die? Are they going to die?

Siddharth: They’re dying. That’s what they do. They die, either slowly or quickly. There’s no place for the local population to go. There is no recourse for them. There are no avenues for justice or recompense. They are so poor, so vulnerable, so disempowered and so expendable in the face of the global economy.

The forces at play here are the biggest governments in the world and the biggest supply chains, the biggest tech and EV companies in the world. The people of the Congo who live there and subsist on an income of a dollar or two a day, they’re powerless in the face of these forces.

There’s no way for them to find any recourse or avenue of redress for what they’re suffering. Not now anyway.

Charles: Now you have children who are being slaves, working in hazardous conditions and dying in mining accidents. It’s just toxic. You wouldn’t put your own kid in this area, right?

Siddharth: I’m so glad you said that because this gets to the crux of what’s happening in this supply chain. We would never send the kids of Cupertino to scrounge in toxic pits and to die in toxic pits. So why is it OK to send the kids of the Congo? Are they worth less? Do they not count the same?

Do their parents not love them as much as we love our children? What is the implication of an economic system that makes it OK to destroy those people and their children for our daily lives when we would never treat our own people that way?

Let’s be clear, people like you and I, we cannot function for 24 hours without cobalt from the Congo. Full stop. There’s no way. Try surviving and functioning for 24 hours without anything you plug in. You can’t do it. So our entire daily existence functions on the utter destruction of these people and the world in which they live in.

We would never tolerate our people over here being treated that way and our environment over here being contaminated and destroyed in that way. Why do we tolerate it over there? What does it say about our economic order that this is the net result of how we’ve constructed things?

What does it say about the global economy right now that this is the result of how we’ve constructed our economy? The ongoing pillage and destruction of African people.

Charles: You mentioned with EVs the big push throughout the world is to get us to net zero. To get us every EV replacing a gas internal combustion engine. How are they going to increase at a scale of 1,000 times to bring all that cobalt to market? How many hundreds of thousands are going to have to die?

Siddharth: We’ll never know the tally of destroyed lives and environmental destruction. We’ll never know. The quantum is just too great, it’s too enormous. It all remains heavily obscured by this haze of nonsense that’s promulgated at the top of the chains.

These claims that our supply chains are untainted by labor abuses and every participant in our supply chain enjoys full human rights and we have zero tolerance policies of child labor and all that. So you think, “Oh OK, that’s fine.” Underneath all those fictions is this enormous pain.

Charles: You went there. If I was running Apple or anywhere in production in the supply chain, I haven’t heard of this. You went there. You didn’t get any special treatment. You just got on a plane, you had some contacts, you got there. There was no government agency, nothing.

You were able to find this out. You had people die in your arms or saw mothers cry after finding out their children were buried alive in a mine. The security would not let them go and even try to dig them out. What kind of disconnect is there between companies making billions of dollars a year and people making a dollar a day?

Why is there such a chasm between the two?

Siddharth: The only answer – I don’t know the answer to that question. The only answer I can come up with is that those people over there just don’t count. The companies at the top of the chain refuse to accept responsibility for what’s happening at the bottom of their supply chains.

Let’s be clear, it’s their supply chain. But for tech and EV companies creating enormous demand for cobalt in their gadgets and cars, this entire blood for cobalt economy would not exist. The demand starts at the top of the chain. Everything that’s happening downstream is a consequence of that.

All the bad actors, all the harm. You get to the bottom and the companies sitting at the top don’t look, don’t see, don’t acknowledge what’s happening in their supply chains. They don’t even go to see. How many tech CEOs have ever stepped foot in the Congo to see where their cobalt comes from?

As you said, I went there. I’m not running a tech company. I’m not running an EV company. But I use those products and I felt some amount of responsibility and duty to understand what was happening in order to support my daily life. Yet the CEOs of these companies can’t spare a week of their life to go and see for themselves.

Or send a team. I never saw a team from any company on the ground trying to figure out what’s happening here and how we can improve conditions. We rely on these people. We rely on the minerals in the dirt under their feet where they have been living for generations.

Don’t we have some obligation to put our own boots on the ground and understand what’s happening here and try to address these conditions so we can reassure our shareholders and consumers that we’re doing everything in our power with our hands on the ground to address these enormous human rights violations?

Charles: You wrote something in your book which was haunting. You talk about one of the translators for your interviews, Augustine, was so distraught after several days of trying to find the words in English that captured the grief being described in Swahili.

These were the townsfolk and these miners. He was interpreting for you what was going on. You write, “He would at time drop his head and sob before attempting to translate what was said. As we parted ways, Augustine had this to say, ‘Please tell the people in your country a child in the Congo dies every day so that they can plug in their phone.’”

Siddharth: I remember that day. I remember that moment. I remember the look on his face. I remember all the interviews he helped translate for me. There was so much pain. You have to imagine a parent, a mother, a father describing the moments they learned their child had been buried alive in a tunnel collapse.

The grief, the terror, the enormous anguish. Unimaginable. The torment of it all. My translator wasn’t prepared for that. He would try to find the words and he couldn’t at times. It was a heavy toll. That was his summation of our experiences. The people in my world need to understand, please tell them, we’re dying here.

Every day. Our children are dying every day so you can plug in your phones. That was the distillation of that series of encounters. It doesn’t get any simpler or more horrible than that. In fact, the tragedy of it all is it’s not complicated. It’s not even necessary.

All of this pain could be prevented if the people at the top of the chain just cared enough. These little micro-encounters of me and a mother with a translator by my side. Or me and a father with a translator. In that little moment there is such an eruption of suffering and pain that comes forth.

Then you multiply that by an entire population of people and it goes beyond any measure. What those people are having to suffer in silence. That’s why Augustine said to please tell your people what’s happening here, that our kids die so you can plug in your phones.

Because otherwise, it’s all happening in this abyss of silence buried beneath the rock and rubble of our global economy.

Charles: What I found troubling, really troubling to me, and it got me thinking. It got to the point I would stay up and think through this. These parents did not wants these kids to go to the mines. Many of them were telling you that if we had the extra dollar he was going to university to be a teacher.

He wanted to go to school. But just to exist on $5 a day, you need five or six people digging all day.

Siddharth: I’m so glad you said that because sometimes outside of Africa, out in our world, we think parents are taking their kids to work so what do they expect is going to happen? They should have them in school. As if those parents are somehow ignorant or selfish or foolhardy.

It’s quite the contrary. All those mothers and fathers know how important it is for the children to get an education. The education that they themselves probably didn’t get. Because they work in a piece-rate economy – what that means is you get paid for the weight of what you produce.

So one, 40 kilogram of copper cobalt ore is a dollar or two. So a family of five people can maybe produce two or three sacks. In the aggregate, they are getting five or six dollars as a family. That’s with children contributing. That’s base survival money.

If you take the children out of the equation, they can’t earn enough to eat. So whenever you have that kind of system at the bottom of a supply chain, parents are forced to take children out of school and forced to bring them and help the whole unit work in order to survive.

They would, all of them, every one of them say, “I want my child to be in school. We just can’t survive otherwise. We can’t afford to keep them in school because we won’t be able to eat.”

The fact that they’re faced with that devil’s bargain means that not only has the local economy, the Congolese government, has failed these people – which is important to acknowledge – but the entire economic order has failed these people.

There’s no reason why anybody at the bottom of our $1,000 smartphone supply chain or $100,000 EV supply chain needs to work in conditions where they can barely survive.

Charles: I just looked up a smartphone. It has about eight grams of refined cobalt. What does that cost? Give me a ballpark number.

Siddharth: The cost of refined cobalt on the London metal exchange is probably – I haven’t looked recently – but probably something like $40 or $50 a kilogram.

Charles: A kilogram. This is eight grams.

Siddharth: This is in grams.

Charles: I’m an American, so I don’t know the metric system that well. A thousand grams is, let’s call it, $50. This is eight grams.

Siddharth: It’s not that much.

Charles: So eight grams. Out of the iPhone cost, let’s say the wholesale cost is $700. You’re talking about a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. If Apple decided – and I’m only picking on Apple simply because I have an Apple phone here, but it could be anybody who buys a battery.

If Apple builds a school or plants trees or gives safety equipment – goggles, gloves – these people go barefoot in a toxic environment, it will increase the cost of your iPhone by three cents? What’s that going to do?

Siddharth: Minimis. It’s a non-figure. Call it even a dollar. Let’s say we got from $700 to $701. It’s a deminimis amount of money. Once you multiply that by all the phones and you put that down at the bottom of the chain, just that extra dollar, let’s just call it a dollar.

You just put that to the bottom. Then suddenly you are probably paying mother and father $15 a day instead of one or two. That means they can keep children in school. That means they can buy clothes and food. That means they have enough saved up in case someone gets sick and they can get medicines.

Add another dollar and now you’re building schools. Public health clinics. Expanding sanitation and electrification. Creating financial literacy programs so people can understand how to save money and so on. It’s a rounding error on the balance sheets of these companies to solve the problem.

What does it cost, as you mentioned, to give mom and dad goggles, gloves, boots and a mask so that they are not being contaminated? Do you know there is a pandemic of birth defects happening in that part of the Congo because mother and father are being contaminated every day?

When they conceive a child, that child is born with all kinds of deformations and other birth defects. Cancers on the rise. Respiratory ailments. Acute dermatitis. Thyroid diseases. Neurological ailments. Everyone is being poisoned and is dying slowly.

All they would need is a mask, some goggles, gloves, boots. How much would that cost?

Charles: It’s like the argument can’t even be made with sweat shops in China and bringing it to America is, “We still want our cheap stuff from Amazon. We still want to buy cheap goods.” Eight grams is, what, five cents a gram at that market? Even if it’s 40 extra cents, double it to 8 cents, it’s insignificant.

I’m just not getting it. You have one chapter in the book where a lady tells you we work in our graves. Villages are flattened. The forests are razed. Behemoth open pits. Tunnels that collapse that don’t have any air shafts, any support. And these people are dying by the thousands.

I’m just not getting it. Why don’t I know about this?

Siddharth: Hopefully the world is starting to learn. With the publication of Cobalt Red, this is the first book that is flooding the world with this truth of what’s happening at the bottom of these supply chains. Hopefully the world is starting to know. 

You and I are having a conversation. People will listen to this conversation. Hopefully thousands of people will listen to this conversation and they’re going to learn. Then they’re going to tell someone. This is how change starts. First, the world has to learn of a horror.

Why did we not know until this point? Well, we’re let’s say 12 years or so into this cobalt scramble. So it’s not been that long in one sense. It took a few years for even some journalists to catch on what was happening down in the Congo. It’s also hard to get in there and find the truth.

That’s another important reason why the world doesn’t know. These are heavily guarded areas. When companies at the top of the chain put out their statements that everything is fine, we tend to say OK, let me upgrade and carry on with my life. Well, that’s changing now.

Every conversation that people have is spreading the voices of the ground out into a world that is slowly learning that their lives are supported – their rechargeable lives – by enormous violence in Africa.

Charles: Siddharth, what you did is beyond. You put your life at risk several times. You have a family. You are not a superman, you are a regular guy who has a family, who has a child. One child? Two? I don’t remember.

Siddharth: One.

Charles: One child. A wife who loves you. You went and risk your life for these people just to get the word out. That’s why I was so troubled when after reading your book I went on YouTube and thought, “there’s probably nothing on this.” I saw videos from six years ago on YouTube.

700,000 views. Another video from a year ago, five months ago, four years ago. I’m saying to myself, “My gosh, this is not some secret.” Five years ago, revisiting the cobalt mining boys. This was done by SkyNews afterwards. Seven years ago, Amnesty International.

This is what we die for, child labor in the DRC cobalt mines. Fortune magazine, four years ago: blood, sweat and batteries inside Congo’s cobalt mines. Tell me where the disconnect is. Why isn’t this front page news? Why hasn’t this been stopped already?

Siddharth: Africans don’t count. They don’t count the same as us. That’s part of the reason. That’s an essential part of the reason. The other part of it is companies at the top of the chain, these stories come out that you are discussing five years ago, four years ago, six years ago, people finding and bringing out some piece of this horror to the world.

It all gets crushed by the enormous marketing puffery from these companies that say, “Well OK, maybe thre’s some problems, but it’s not in my supply chain. Don’t you worry. Mine is clean. We’ve made sure of it. We only buy from ABC Mining and there’s no children working over there.” 

They all say that. If that’s true for all these companies, then where is all that child-mined cobalt going? If it’s not in any of their supply chains, just go down the list of tech companies and EV companies and they all say there’s some problems on the ground. Yeah, we saw that report from five years ago.

And four years ago Sky News was there. But that’s someone else, not me. If that’s true for all them, where’s it all going? Those kids aren’t digging cobalt for sport. It all goes into the supply chain. It all goes into their supply chains. That’s the truth that is slowly emerging.

This disconnect that has existed for this period of time between the horror at the ground and the fictions told at the top of the chain, that’s slowly getting dispelled. With each new story, each new conversation, each new effort to get the truth out into the world, these companies can’t keep claiming whatever is happening isn’t in my supply chain.

There’s too much cobalt being dug out of the ground by these hundreds of thousands of people for nobody to be buying it.

Charles: What do you say to someone who says this is a sovereign country, they have their own form of government, they should have their own checks and balances and what happens? If they’re not doing anything, what do I care?

Siddharth: Congo, you have to imagine a country, the entire heart of the African continent, an enormous country with 80 or 90 million people there. Their entire national budget is roughly the same as the state of Idaho, which has one-fiftieth the number of people.

You have a grindingly poor country with no money that is beset by violence on every border it has. The eastern part of that country is still a warzone, leading back all the way back to the Rwandan genocide. It never stopped for the people in the Congo. There’s violence all up and down the eastern part of that country.

You have a country that only gained independence in 1960. No sooner had it gained independence than did its former colonial powers descend on the country, take over the mining sector, which was about 80% of government income and succeed it from the nation.

It’s just been one mess after another for that country from war to neocolonial interference. The Congo never had a chance. From the moment it was independent and even before that during the colonial period. It’s just been pillaged for generations.

It is an impossible task to ask a country that has no money, that is beset by violence, and has been subject to foreign interference for centuries to pick itself up and start governing itself and start managing that enormous territory in an effective manner. It needs help. It needs help from those availing of its people and its resources.

There’s not a single American company in the ground in Congo. There are American companies buying up all that cobalt at the top of the chain, but they’re not on the ground. That’s where they need to be because we do have the financial wherewithal, the technical capacity and, theoretically, the human rights standards to get on the ground and help those communities.

Charles: What about the United Nations, for example?

Siddharth: UN has a very mixed relationship, mixed history, with the Congo. It’s not necessarily a good one. There have been UN peacekeeping forces in various parts of the Congo, again, since independence. It’s very hard for the UN to have any real impact on the ground in the Congo.

Number one, because of lack of scale. Number two, a lack of resources. Number three, limit on mandates. They’re not there to do humanitarian work, to build schools. They are largely to keep militia groups from running amuck in the eastern part of the country.

There are UN agencies. UNICEF has built some schools. USAID is on the ground. Australian Aid is on the ground. UK agencies are on the ground doing little bits and pieces. But it’s all drops in the bucket. Nobody is addressing the horror of cobalt mining.

Charles: So what’s your plan?

Siddharth: This is how change happens. This is how it’s always happened throughout history. There is some horror taking place and truth seekers go and find it and bring it up to the attention of the world. They flood the world with the truth of a horror.

Inevitably and invariably this activates a community of conscience. People who declare, not on my time, not on my watch. I will not be a participant in a civilization that permits this kind of horror to take place. The first efforts to abolish slavery started that way.

Every advancement in human rights starts in that way. What are the right levers that have to be pulled and pushed and tugged to achieve sustained ground impact remains to be seen. It will probably be a mix of ground-up agitation by a community of conscience, as well as top-down regulatory action to compel companies to take responsibility for their supply chains.

If they were going to self regulate, they’d have done it by now. If they were going to sort out their supply chains on their own, they would have done it by now. So they will have to be compelled to. Either through consumer agitation and clamoring or top-down regulatory enforcement.

There are laws on the books in this country that could be applied tomorrow to help achieve that. Under the Trade Facilitation Act of 2016, you can be prohibited from importing any good made in part or in whole through child labor. You apply that to cobalt and suddenly it all comes to a grinding halt.

I daresay the companies selling us phones and cars will start paying attention to the human rights of the people in the Congo. We applied this law to China to the Uyghur situation. Solar panels and other things. So we just need to start applying some of these regulations.

Then there’s a community of conscience that will get activated and will clamor for change and accountability. Then we will achieve progress. But it starts with the world learning the truth.

Charles: I just find it – the irony is amazing of the tech companies and the social justice they promote. Not only promote. I shouldn’t say promote. Flaunt. Here an essential part that is in every piece of technology. I would assume in semiconductors, right? It would have to be in chip making.

Siddharth: Evil doesn’t walk in with a curly moustache, the yellow teeth and the scowl. It’s always a shiny, pretty face you never see coming. So we have this shiny tech world and this shiny aspiration of the EV transition. At least the battery part of it is built on violence.

That is the truth that the world has to know and understand. These companies have to address it. No one is saying to stop using phones, don’t buy an EV. It’s not your responsibility or my responsibility as consumers to go fix what’s happening in the Congo. In fact, you and I have been made unwitting participants in this violence.

When you buy a phone – and I can see your Apple laptop there – you bought that, you plug it in. You don’t think, “I’m plugging in the death of a child in the Congo.” When you buy an EV thinking you’re making a green choice you don’t think you’re destroying the environment and the people of the Congo.

We’re all made unwitting participants in this enormous violence and that should outrage us.

Charles: I’m just thinking, when you’re hearing all this transition to electric vehicles you must shudder. You must say please no.

Siddharth: If the supply chain isn’t addressed, what happening now is only going to be incalculably worse. If you look at projections for future demand as we go from 25 to 28 million EVs on the road to 200 or 300 million in 2035..

Charles: It was just the last couple of years it’s been increasing, but we’re 290 million vehicles in the United States. Let’s call it 3%. So you’re looking at 280. Nine million EVs and that will grow. Each EV – I have to keep checking – 1,000 times more?

Siddharth: Up to two bowling balls of cobalt.

Charles: We’re just measuring these in grams. To dig this stuff out is going to be exponential.

Siddharth: Yes.

Charles: When you hear this green energy from the president and administration and all these good-feeling people, they’re causing the destruction of millions. But the problem I see here is why aren’t the tech companies putting this all together? Why aren’t they coming out in front of it and saying we know this?

It can’t be that much money. I don’t think it’s the money part. Is it?

Siddharth: It’s not the money. It can’t be. Money part is de minimis. It’s not that it’s too complicated. Figuring out how to manufacture and design a smartphone is more complicated. Figuring out how to produce automobiles at scale, that’s complicated.

Giving people some gloves and masks, that’s not complicated. Building schools is not complicated.

Charles: Basically, look, these are owned by Chinese companies. There’s only so much we can do. And if the Chinese companies don’t want to do it, we can give them the money but it would probably be swallowed up and pocketed. We don’t own these mines. I don’t think any American companies own these mines.

We have zero representation after Freeport pulled out in 2006, 2008 or somewhere around there. We have all these mines that aren’t American owned. It’s sad, but if they were I think we’d have much more leverage.

Siddharth: You’re right. I think so. That said, I think we have to take that argument and flip it around. Right now, you’re right, a tech or EV company will say, ‘Hey, what am I supposed to do? I’m buying the battery from that Chinese company and that Chinese company is buying the cobalt from some Chinese mining company. They are the ones on the ground. What am I supposed to do?”

Doesn’t that sound awfully like a cop out? You know, you just say it’s someone else’s responsibility. Even though I’m buying it, it’s still someone else’s responsibility and I’m going to throw up my hands and say it’s too complicated. I don’t accept that.

I think, especially the big ones, if they were to say – Apple, Google, Tesla, whoever. We’re not picking on them, just naming companies, the big ones. If they got boots on the ground in the Congo and said, “I am not buying cobalt that I cannot see with my eyes is untainted by human rights violations and environmental destruction,” you don’t think conditions would change?

Their enormous buying power and the market economy forces of their buying power wouldn’t create change if they took the time and effort to be on the ground rather than sitting back at headquarters and just pointing their finger downstream?

You see when everybody is pointing their finger downstream, it’s that person’s fault, it’s the mining company, it’s the battery, they’re all pointing their finger downstream, the last finger is pointing at the kid buried alive in a tunnel. Or the family caked in toxic filth.

They’re left holding the bag, literally, because no one is accepting responsibility for them even though everyone is generating enormous fortunes on the backs of their labor. I don’t accept the argument that it’s someone else’s responsibility. Demand started at the top.

You break it, you fix it. They have to be on the ground where their cobalt is being dug. Yes, it may pass through various hands and so on one the way to the top, but the whole chain only exists because they created demand for it. They should be on the ground.

By the way, they all claim already that their supply chains are untainted by human rights abuses. So no one is asking them to do anything they don’t already claim is true. They all say mining is done sustainably. Every participant in our supply chain is assured human rights. We adhere to human rights norms. There’s no child labor.

They make all these claims already and yet none of them are on the ground to see is that actually true.

Charles: It’s like what happened with the sweatshops where they made you check, inspections. What was the sweatshops in China? That was driven by the consumer or that was driven by the company?

Siddharth: Listen, it’s always the profit motive. If you’re a company, particularly a publically traded company, you have under the most basic economic system capitalist theory your obligation is to maximize shareholder value. That means boosting profits, which means cutting costs.

Companies scour the world for the lowest-cost labor environment because labor is almost always the highest cost of running any business. That’s why slavery was devised. Let’s not pay anybody anything. So you just have shades of that in the modern era. Where is the cheapest workforce?

Is it in China? Is it in Bangladesh? Is it in Jamaica? Philippines? It’s never in our backyard, right? Because we would have to treat people properly here and pay people properly here and give them benefits and so on. Safety equipment. A company will scour the world and say, “Where’s the cheapest labor force? Where are the resources I need?”

That’s what drives this. That’s what drives this impetus to find under regulated labor markets where human rights are dispensable and sustainability practices are optional. Then you have the chain. You have that abuse at the bottom feeding into the profitability at the top.

Each quarter we are returning more and more value to shareholders. The CEO is doing his or her job. Task finished.

Charles: I don’t know how many years it took for blood diamonds to be a thing. Where now my kids are in their 20s and 30s and they would never think about buying a blood diamond. It would only be a lab-grown diamond. How dare you even think that? It took a good 30 years or so, 40 years or so.

There were movies with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a movie about blood diamonds and the whole thing. It took a long time. But here it seems like a slam dunk. Especially people who are buying EVs are socially conscious, are socially aware, are environmentally aware.

Let them know where things are coming from. You would think, especially because it’s not going to increase the price by much – what are we talking about? In the scheme of things it doesn’t seem to be much. I don’t know, there just seems to be something that’s missing here.

I can’t put my finger on it. It seems too logical for the solution to play out. Yet, what’s holding it back? If you were to sit down with Tim Cook, what could he possibly say? I signed off on this, I know it’s good? We know that’s not the case because then a guy like you would say, “Come with me. Come on a plane. Let’s fly in your private plane and we’ll get there. I’ll take you to the people.”

What am I missing?

Siddharth: There’s a few important things you said. The blood diamond movement, it took time. The truth came out, it flooded the world. There were big Hollywood movies about it. Everyone came to a point, community of conscience, said I won’t contribute to this.

I’m not going to buy a ring, put it on my fiancé’s finger knowing kids were chopped to pieces for it. Right? Your kids who are maybe in the market for a ring will say they’ll get a lab grown or something else. I’m not going to contribute to that. People with their conscious making a choice not to contribute to violence.

There were also protocols established like the Kimberley Process to ensure that diamonds are mined in a responsible manner. It may not be perfect, but it’s something. There’s progress. People can make a choice. I think the difference is a diamond might be a once or twice in a lifetime purchase, but we’re buying this stuff and using it every day.

We can’t function without it. You can certainly get through a lifetime without a diamond easily. You can’t get through your lifetime without your smartphone or your laptop.

Charles: You know what I think the most exciting thing about a Tesla, for example, is the long range. The latest iPhone, first thing, how much battery charge does it have? My Macbook. All this points down to one thing and that’s cobalt. Just a final word on this – and that sounds so crass and so arrogant, but we could talk for hours on this because that’s how important it is.

What would be the next step? You mentioned awareness. Okay, my listeners are now aware. Now what?

Siddharth: As individuals we have choices to make. Right now, today, as I said, you and I and your listeners can’t solve these problems tomorrow. But we have choices to make. We have been marketed this idea that we have to upgrade our phone every year.

The camera is a little better, the lens is a little wider, the processor is a little faster, the charge lasts longer, whatever it is. Do we really need to upgrade our phone every year? Because that’s part of what creates demand. That demand pressure goes down the chain to these kids in the Congo. We have consumer choices we can make.

Charles: But let me stop you a second. Let’s say we did that. Let’s say we did that. Now we need less miners. Now if we had five people digging a day for $5, now only three are going to be digging for $3 because they’re not going to pay any more. Now we started a new problem.

Siddharth: In tandem to our consumer choices is that we have to agitate for change. We have to be in touch with our elected officials and representatives. There’s murmurings in DC, believe me. I get emails from the odd congressperson saying, “Wait a minute, I just found out about this.”

Charles: Let me ask you a question. Did you send your book out to 435 congresspeople and 100 senators?

Siddharth: That’s 500 books. That would be a lot of books for me to get. No. I did not send them.

Charles: Let me ask you because we have my listeners and I was thinking why don’t you start a GoFundMe? I’d be the first contributor to send 500 books with a personal letter from you to the people in power, to 535 representatives of the people.

Siddharth: Let’s do it. I mean, it just takes a handful right?

Charles: All you need is one congressman or senator of influence.

Siddharth: Fair enough. To start some sort of movement with some bills or regulatory movement or, as I said, apply the Trade Facilitation Act.

Charles: Can I challenge you to start that or maybe even call your publisher and have them donate the books?

Siddharth: Absolutely. I will contact them.

Charles: Or GoFundMe. You know, you were on Joe Rogan. Millions of people heard you. You get this book in people’s hands. I read it and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Your writing style is up close and personal. It’s terrible. I say that in a nice way. It’s terrible.

I’m thinking, I really admire – I don’t admire it, I’m in awe of your passion, of your courage. This takes a lot of courage. I’m just thinking to myself, change. Every day kids are dying. What are we waiting for?

Siddharth: Absolutely. Ultimately, these companies have to be regulated into proper behavior. If they were going to behave in a dignified manner for the people of the Congo of their own accord they would have done it by now. They will have to be compelled.

Charles: That ain’t happening. It really has to be that they have to be called out. That’s all. That’s really it.

Siddharth: Yes. I agree. It will require courageous policymakers to take a stand in this country and other countries.

Charles: Hang on, you’ve done your work. You’ve done the bulkhead of this. You presented them with a 300-page, firsthand account of what’s going on there. You’re still living so they can call you and say, “Did this happen?”

I’m sure you can get some of those people, your interpreters, your people on the ground, the come to Washington. That’s not going to be an issue.

Siddharth: Correct. I’m happy to show them the photos and videos from the ground too. The truth is there. It’s available for anyone with a compassionate heart and a conscience to access. That includes the CEOs of these companies.

Charles: Now that we know, once you hear this podcast and now that you know this information, you can’t be the same person you were before. Now you’re on notice.

Siddharth: That’s right. The clock is ticking. We’re all on notice, every one of us. What are we going to do about this?

Charles: We’ll talk a couple of ideas, but I think the first thing is to start a GoFundMe. I’ll put it in the description. A book is 20 bucks or so. If everyone gives 20 bucks and we get 500 people or some people give two or three books, you could send them out in a heartbeat.

I’m telling you, 535 books in the hands of elected officials, something has to happen. You’ve gotta get one. There’s gotta be one out there.

Siddharth: At least. At least one. Someone of conscience. I’ll write to my publishers as soon as we’re done. Let’s get it cooking.

Charles: Beautiful. Folks, the name of the book is Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. There are few books you read that actually change the way you think or shake you. This is one of them. I highly recommend you go out and read this book.

As Siddharth said, he’s not saying don’t choose iPhones and don’t buy Teslas, but it takes so little to change the facts on the ground, such as getting these people gloves and goggles. Building a school. How much can a school be? One of the things that was haunting was a 14-year-old girl with two twins on her back, two months old, digging in this toxic cesspool.

Look, the Almighty will call us to account for this now that we know.

Siddharth: Well said. Absolutely.

Charles: Siddharth, God bless you. Keep doing the great work that you’re doing. I totally agree. It has to start somewhere. All these great movements. Slavery took decades before people realized how terrible it was. This might too, but it has to start somewhere.

Siddharth: It has to start somewhere. The first movement to abolish slavery started when 12 people got together on May 2, 1787, in a printing shop in London at a time when slavery was the way of things. The Church of England had slaves. They said this cannot stand.

They prevailed. It took them decades, but they prevailed.

Charles: Siddharth, thanks so much for your time. Greatly appreciate it. We have to have you on the show again as a follow up to see, hopefully, six months to a year from now you will be telling me there is legislation in Congress, there’s some movement and everything is heading in the right direction.

I really believe it will happen. Thanks so much.

Siddharth: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Charles: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you are a new listener, welcome. If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple podcasts.

Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on the Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.


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