The humanitarian crisis in Congo has shocked the world, as 6.9 million people experience displacement due to violence from armed groups. What is not often talked about is that the suffering of Congolese communities is part of the sinister underbelly of emerging “green technology.” The mineral mining in eastern Congo, used in solar panels and electric cars, is behind much of the region’s violence. What is happening in Congo is a glaring example of how emerging “green” markets are relying on colonial practices to sustain their expansion. If we want to see a truly just energy transition, the reliance on colonial practices of extraction must be uprooted.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a large landlocked country in central Africa that is home to 102 million people. Congo has diverse ecologies, including the world’s second-largest rainforest, after the Amazon. It is very resource-rich, with vast deposits of gold, cobalt, coltan copper, nickel and zirconium across the country. Cobalt and coltan in particular are essential to many green technologies like solar panels, electric vehicles and the batteries used to store their energy. Congo produced 70 to 80 percent of the world’s cobalt. As demand for this technology skyrockets, demand for these minerals in Congo has also shot up.
The mines are owned by various multinational corporations and the Congolese government. Up until recently, European and American corporations owned a significant amount of the mines, but in the 2010s, Chinese companies bought out most of the Congolese mines. Various Chinese companies, backed by their government, came to an agreement with the Congolese government for increased aid and infrastructure, in exchange for a majority stake in various mining operations.
The mining industry has led to large-scale conflict, particularly in eastern Congo. The Congolese military, more than 120 militias and armed groups, and other governments have waged decades of war for control of the region’s mining reserves. Most of the funding for armed groups comes from mining profits, and many of the groups emerge largely to compete for control of mining resources. This has led to a continuous cycle of violence with devastating effects. The displacement of residents by multinational corporations, armed group conflict and the government has created this disaster.
Current mining practices in Congo frequently violate human rights. For example, residents are often evicted without proper compensation when mining sources are discovered. The Congolese military is often complicit in this, by displacing and burning down settlements to make way for mining operations. These mining operations, though owned by multinational companies, are often under-regulated and have dangerous labor conditions. Many of these corporations pay local officials to overlook blatant human rights abuses and environmental degradation. “Artisanal mines,” small-scale mining with freelance workforces, produce 20-30 percent of the country’s cobalt output. They are also known for poor labor conditions and using child labor, and workers face physical and sexual violence with few opportunities for recourse from bribed officials and security forces. The air in and around all mines is toxic to breathe; a 2020 study found that the risk of congenital abnormalities rises significantly when parents have worked in them.
These mining operations also put intense stress on the country’s rich biodiversity. Mining companies often neglect to restore the local environment after completing operations, devastating the local ecology, polluting water sources and disturbing agricultural practices.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Congo has witnessed the exploitation of people and land for resources. If anything, the contemporary crisis in Congo is a continuation of its long colonial history. In the late 1800s, the Belgians’ rubber plantations enslaved Congolese people and implemented inhumane punishments like severing the hands of those who did not meet quotas. As many as 10 million Congolese people died due to the brutality of the working conditions under this era of Belgian colonial rule.
In the early 1900s, the Belgian government established Congo’s first large-scale mines. The minerals from these mines largely went to Western countries, including the U.S., for weapon manufacturing during World War I and II.
The colonial business model was only interested in resource extraction without any care for residents, fair wages, the environment or social impact. Even though the Belgians no longer control the mines in Congo, the colonial practices have remained the same, as multinational companies continue to influence the mining industry.
This neocolonial model that governs Congo’s mining industry today is marked by corruption, bribery and manipulation by Western and Chinese multinational companies working with the Congolese ruling class. For most of its history, Europe and the U.S. have had a disproportionate amount of influence on Congo’s mines. Notably, Swiss company Glencore and U.S. hedge fund Och-Ziff Capital Management worked with Israeli businessman Dan Gertler to orchestrate bribes with the ruling Kabila family. Through years of bribes, behind-the-door deals and corruption, these Western companies bought significant shares in various Congolese mines for below market price. This corruption allowed these companies to pollute rivers and air quality and violate human rights with impunity.
In 2007, President Joseph Kabila signed a deal with a Chinese corporation, owned by the Chinese government, that would exchange $6.5 billion in infrastructure investments for minerals including cobalt. However, corruption continued as the Kabila family embezzled and took bribes from the company. Since then, there have been several deals with others, most significantly China Molybdenum (now known as CMOC Group Limited). These Chinese companies have also failed to realize the promise of infrastructure. They also bribe local officials as they engage in illegal logging, unauthorized mining and selling of minerals, circumventing government contracts and human rights abuses.
Rwanda and Uganda, which are complex allies to Western powers like the U.S., the U.K., and France, also play a role in this conflict. Rwanda and Uganda constantly invade eastern Congo and support armed groups for proxy control of these mining resources. Even though these countries’ actions are well-known in international communities, Western military funding for both countries has remained strong up until this year, when the U.S. suspended military aid. For decades the U.S. gave military aid to Rwanda, and still does for Uganda, to “defend their borders,” knowing those funds are used to invade the Congo.
The corruption, mismanagement of resources and international collusion create the perfect storm for armed conflict in eastern Congo. Militias and armed groups fight to control mining operations and artisanal mining ventures. Multinational corporations that use cobalt, primarily technology companies, often don’t ask questions about mine labor conditions, environmental impact, or who controls mines on the ground. Major companies like Bangkok-based THAISARCO, U.K.-based Afrimex and Belgium-based Trademet knowingly purchase minerals from armed groups for cheaper rates. Western countries that share their sympathies for this crisis and deliver aid money overlook the ways that companies in their jurisdiction contribute to it.
The emerging “green technology” sector perpetuates this vicious cycle of colonial violence. The green tech industry has an insatiable demand for rare minerals coming from the Congo, with no concern for the social, political and environmentally destabilizing effects. This disregard is a core problem that has fueled the climate crisis. Western nations and companies through colonialism have continuously consumed resources like oil, timber and coal from countries in the Global South and other marginalized communities without concern for the environmental, political and social impact. They have benefited from resource-intensive lifestyles while displacing the consequences onto poor Black and Brown countries and communities. Now the “green” industries that have promised to stop the climate crisis are participating in this same practice of willful ignorance.
This framework of ignoring the true cost of these mineral resources in Congo is incompatible with the goal of a sustainable and just transition away from fossil fuels. As a climate justice advocate, I can’t feign ignorance of the devastating effects of mineral mining on Congo just because those minerals are used to create renewable energy technology. This does nothing to fundamentally challenge the very systems of inequality that have led to the climate crisis. If anything, it perpetuates them with a new shiny green coat of paint. The green technology industry has learned nothing from the mistakes of fossil fuel companies. The capitalistic logic of acquiring more resources to feed an infinite growth machine at whatever cost will not lead us to a sustainable future. Sustainability is not solar panels and electric cars in Western high-income countries, while the rest of the world pays for our lifestyles in blood. These colonial and capitalistic approaches in emerging green economies must be addressed and uprooted if we hope to have a real shot at stopping the climate crisis.
As climate activists, politicians and scientists continue to build coalitions and momentum toward a sustainable and just society, we must not fall into the trap of colonial exploitation. It is essential that emerging green industries pay attention to where and how the resources they use come to be. The green technology industry must take on decolonial approaches to live up to its “green” title. This can seem contradictory because mining is very polluting, but the effects can certainly be mitigated. This means green technology companies must seriously investigate their supply chains, and use their power to influence better practices for multinational mining company practices and independent artisanal mining ventures.
With a process like mining, green industries must seek to minimize the environmental and social impact, even if it means scaling down production, trying new methods, redistributing power to residents and decreasing profits. This would mean the halting of the unjust displacement of communities. Communities must also be able to engage in fair and democratic negotiations and compensation for relocating, with the goal of reestablishing dwellings with infrastructure investments. Residents must be active stakeholders in these processes, and companies must empower local artisanal miners with safe and designated mining zones, proper training and equipment. Multinational companies must be required to use low-impact mining techniques, eco-friendly equipment and reuse mining waste in their proposed infrastructure projects. After mining operations are complete, these companies must be held accountable for rehabilitating mining sites, so that the land can be returned to residents even better than it was found.
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