KOLWEZI, DRC: THE COST OF CONNECTION
The colonial project in Africa was mainly motivated by the usurpation of its abundant and diverse natural resources. The discovery of large mineral deposits by colonizing nations gave way to the historical legacy of foreign own land in many parts of the continent. In this (debatable) post-colonial period and with growing development in industrial practices, mining areas experience complete transformation by way of social and environmental depletion. This period also inherits political corruption, leading to the gains of commercial extraction being shared between corrupt leaders, civil servants and foreign businesses. What should have been a viable way of rebuilding old colonies, became the ground of neocolonialism. The shift from traditional modes of governance to the imposition of colonial rule to a post-colonial structure is still being negotiated.
Many of us have heard of the dangerous mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo for minerals like cobalt that power our phones, computers and cars. The country produces about 70% of the world’s supply of cobalt, 15% of which is sourced through artisanal mining (Murray, 2022). Let’s take a moment to look at one of the cities holding one of the largest reserves of Cobalt: Kolwezi. This southern city was “founded in 1937 by the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, a mining company created by Belgian royal decree” where it housed its Congolese workers who built its infrastructure and worked the mines (Niarchos, 2021). It is now home to half a million people and sits atop cobalt, gold and copper reserves (Africanews, 2022). The city keeps its financial attractiveness despite the violent political transitions it has experienced since independence. Mining is strong as ever, with people being bought out of their neighbourhoods to expand extraction activities.
One of the major foreign players in the area is China, where the company Congo DongFang International was granted mineral rights in 2015 (Niarchos, 2022). It is currently working on expanding its activities in the neighborhood of Kasuo, meaning that thousands of people will be displaced and driven into more precarity. In this case, citizens are offered buyouts and relocation in areas that do not have running water or electricity, while the mines are supplied with these utilities (Africanews, 2022). However, living in proximity to mines poses significant health and environmental concerns given the water and air pollution caused by mining. This is where corruption once again fails locals, as preference is given to the entities that will be providing more business to the country and lining politicians’ pockets.
Some have taken matters into their own hands by way of artisanal mining. Operating as freelancers, citizens in these resource-rich areas hand-dig in their own backyards, generating a higher income from producing “higher grade ores than those extracted through industrial or mechanized production means” (Murray, 2022). The health and environmental risks associated with this informal sector are exacerbated by companies illegally buying these minerals, which are priced more attractively (ibid.). The lack of regulations and safety enables not only unfair wages but also, inhumane treatment. And so so we come back to the beginning; the battery-making business is dirty. But it’s better than using fossil fuels to generate energy, right? From the multinational perspective, that has capitalism as its ethos, the answer is: Yes. Seemingly improving one environmental issue by aggravating another (that is, using a place as both a source of bounty and landfill) only enables greenwashing.
People are part of nature; the habit of survival cannot be an indictment of those who have been collateral damage for centuries. Taking about both people just trying to eat and the earth trying to regulate itself by regulating* humans through extreme weather events. The cruelty of false hope promised by technical advancement is only driving us backwards. I do believe that bottom-up pushback is possible as we’ve seen with the mobilization of indigenous people in the Americas against oil companies. A reclaiming of lands is slowly being strategized in Africa, with countries like South Africa and Ghana working on making striking deals to rejuvenate mining lands.
Murray, Aphra. Cobalt Mining: The Dark Side of the Renewable Energy Transition. 27 September 20122. https://earth.org/cobalt-mining/
*Check your favourite “slang” website for this definition