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August 27, 2021 21 mins

We explore the hidden role of cobalt in the A.I. revolution. The element is a key ingredient of lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to laptops to electric vehicles. But the way cobalt is mined is troubling. New Yorker journalist Nicolas Niarchos takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which accounts for more than 70% of the world's cobalt supply. There, he exposes child labor in the supply chain and reveals a new frontier of competition with China. 

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Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Sleepwalkers is a production of iHeart Media and Unusual Productions.
We're in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We're in the
south of the country, in a region that very famous
for its copper and cobalt reserves. It's an area of
beautiful expanses of rolling hills peppered with shrubs and trees.

(00:26):
The grounders dry and dusty, and there are at lease
of dust storms that are whipped up from the minds
that dot the region. That's Nicholas Niakos speaking. He's a
journalist who recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker
magazine under the headline the dark Side of Congo's Cobalt Rush.
I think that often reporters described places as dusty in

(00:50):
order to give them atmosphere. I try not to do that,
but you can't really help but notice the dust, because,
especially in the dry season, nose gets plugged with it,
and this dust has very very high concentration of heavy
metals and even radioactive material. I wanted to know what
took Nicholas to dusty Kolwzy, a city of about half

(01:12):
a million people in the mineral rich south of the
Democratic Republic of Congo. I was interested in working on
cobalts after reading about some of the shenanigans in the
mining industry, people who have made incredible amounts of money
in one of the poorest countries of Africa, and that
really took me to this question of who are the

(01:34):
people actually doing the mining? And in cool Weazy Nicholas
met those people, men, women, and in some cases children.
I met this child called Zicki who worked as a
child miner. He worked from the age of three in

(01:58):
some of the minds and he had this terrible experience
m hmm. Was talking about how he mutually been beaten.
He was talking about how terrifying going down the minds was,
and at one point I took out my cell phone.

(02:20):
I said, listen to a new phone like this in
the US goes for over a thousand dollars. Then he
said something like, it really pains me to hear that.
It really hurts me deep down my soul. Don't made
him sad. I think he thought that the people buying

(02:46):
these phones didn't understand the suffering of people like him.
In this bonus episode, we look at the relationship between
cobalt lithium ion batteries and the hidden labor upon which
so much technology that we all live by is built.
I'm as Veloshin and this is Sleepwalkers. So Carrot's great

(03:16):
to see you. It's been a long while. Although that
was a rather bleak and sobering introduction. It definitely was
a bleak and so we're in introduction. But it's very
good to be back on Sleepwalkers and to to see
you after all this time. So this is, on the
face of it, a bit of an unusual story for us.
We don't normally cover mining on Sleepwalkers, and yet there's

(03:39):
this extraordinary story that recently came out in the New
Yorker Full Disclosure, written by a friend of mine, Nicholas,
and it's about children mining toxic cobalt in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, and some of this cobalt reportedly ends
up in the lithium and batteries that power our tesla's well.
I don't actually have a Tesla, but I do have
an Efe. I definitely have an iPhone. I've talked a

(04:02):
lot about my iPhone addiction here. I've been very open
and vulnerable about it. Um Actually, to me, this is
a quintessential Sleepwalker story and that we're looking at multiple
large technology companies touting progress innovation and even in some cases,
like with Tesla, efforts to rely on more sustainable technology.

(04:22):
But there is a dark underbelly that exposes the limits
of breakneck innovation. But that's sort of the history of innovation. Well,
it's funny you joked about your iPhone addiction. I mean,
of course there's a lot of tech coverage. What are
these things doing to our children? We see very clearly

(04:43):
from Nick's reporting what these things are doing to other
people's children. Not everyone's blind to what's going on. According
to the piece in the New Yorker, is actually a
lawsuit in Washington right now where some attorneys from the
International Rights advocates are suing Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and
Tesla for the deaths and injuries of children. And I

(05:05):
just want to read to you from the complaint. These
boys are working under stone age conditions, for paltry wages
and at immense personal risk to provide cobalt. The hundreds
of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year
would not be possible without cobalt mind in the Democratic
Republic of Congo. Now, to be clear, this is a complaint,

(05:27):
not a judgment, but it's absolutely shocking. Absolutely. Our President
Joe Biden recently signed an executive order aimed at addressing
supply chain issues for rare earth minerals that the United
States rely on from other nations. Um. There was actually
a recent article in the New York Times that said
that the United States lags far behind other countries in

(05:50):
manufacturing many clean energy technologies, which leaves US heavily reliant
on imports. I think the Biden administration is rightfully focused
on the sort of greeny of America, but I think
that they are probably less preoccupied with what we are
now seeing as a standout human rights issue, and that
that's why I appreciate this article. Nicholas has written, well,

(06:12):
part of it is the greening of America and the
other part is competition with China. Right, So there's this
kind of undertone in the piece of a new great
game or a competition for scarce resources. And indeed, many
of the companies that own and operate cobalt mines in
the DRC are Chinese, but the trick is they sell
to American companies. So you have this kind of hypocrisy

(06:35):
where American big tech companies love to kind of hold
up China as this threat as to the reason they
can't be regulated because the U s would fall behind.
And at the same time, they are using the output
of Chinese companies mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of
Congo to power some of the most iconic and profitable

(06:55):
consumer products that we have in this country, from the
iPhone to the Tesla. Yeah. I think what's so interesting
is like, it's not so much about staying competitive with China,
it's about staying competitive at all. And I think without China,
American technology companies don't have a shot at being profitable
in the way that they are now. And I think
that it is sort of high time that we call

(07:18):
attention to that when we come back. Nicholas takes us
deep into cobalt mining in the DRC and explains just
how the output of the minds there ends up in
our pockets in the form of our phones. For decades,

(07:41):
cobalt has been a crucial industrial element, used in everything
from shipbuilding two airplane engines. In fact, during the Cold War,
there was a proxy conflict in the DRC between the
US and the Soviet Union, reportedly fueled in part by
competition over co boalt, and demand has not slowed down

(08:03):
far from it. In the last twelve months alone, the
price of cobalt has doubled, and much of the demand
is stoked by its use in the manufacturing of lithiumine batteries.
Silicon Valley has become incredibly wealthy through the production of
devices like laptops and cell phones which used lithiumine batteries,

(08:25):
and now electric cars have become part of selicon value.
Cobalt is essentially a safety feature of lithiumine batteries. It
allows you to make the batteries smaller and more powerful
while reducing the risk of them catching fire, and that's
why it remains crucial to everything from personal electronics to

(08:46):
electric vehicles. The history of the lithia mine and battery
is really interesting. It was developed as a response to
some of the oil crises of the nineteen seventies. Exxon
was looking for a way to power cars that wasn't
dependent on oil, so they developed these very sort of
early type of electric cars, and they had these lithium

(09:09):
batteries which were liable to overheat and catch fire and
had to be very big. The three inventors of the
lithium ion battery actually won the Nobel Prize a couple
of years ago for their work on creating these batteries,
and the citations noted just how ubiquitous these batteries are
and how they power modern life. Silicon Valley has an

(09:32):
insatiable appetite for cobalt and lithium ion batteries play a
key role in much of the wonder of modern life.
But why did it have to be mined in such
deplorable conditions? So you really need to make a distinction
between two types of mining. There's artisanal mining, which is

(09:52):
responsible for about ten to the supply chain, and then
the rest is industrially mined by large companies. Artisal miners
are people who come and mine the cobalt in essentially
stone edge conditions. They use chisels that they sharpen, often
by hand, and they go down very very deep mind shafts,

(10:15):
and the shafts that they build are often not reinforced
properly or in very sandy soil, which leads to the
shafts collapsing. So this in French is known as an
eb or a can And there are these terrifying stories
of Ed Boulmont which kill you up to seventy people

(10:36):
working in these very very deep shafts. So to be clear,
the majority of cobalt mining does take place in industrial minds,
which have much better safety conditions than the so called
artisanal or unofficial minds. According to Nicholas, it's in these
artisanal minds that child labor is most prevalent. I spoke

(10:58):
to children who said to me that they've been working
as young as three, and I really didn't believe this,
and a Catholic charity that works with the children actually
confirmed that the very youngest children sought through the rejected
pile of material that larger mining companies will cast off
to pick out the high quality cobalt from the lower

(11:20):
quality or The obvious question is just how much of
the cobalt that's mind or sorted by children ends up
in products that many of us use every day. It's
very difficult to know what makes its way to big
companies like Apple. There are still large companies that buy
from artisanal sources, and that seems to filter into the

(11:44):
supply chain and often through smelters and sort of mixing
up of products. It will end up in people's phones
and potentially in people's car batteries. And while companies like
Apple have made efforts to stop that happening, there's still
a lot of evidence to suggest that children are mining cobalt.

(12:08):
I went to a mind called Cassulo, which is directly
in Apple supply chain, and that mine, I have to say,
they had erected a wall and they were trying to
keep children out. However, I spoke to some miners and
they said that children still make an effort to get in,
and still do get in, and still do manage to
mind cobalt. There So the question you have to ask

(12:33):
yourself is why are the children mining? A big part
of the answer is clearly that the political will doesn't
exist to stop children from mining cobalt. The brutal backdrop
to all of this is the cobalt itself is a
byproduct of copper mining, which was a key activity of
the Belgian colonialists in Congo. This country has now been

(12:55):
exploited for centuries with very little concern for the welfare
of the local population. As Nicholas explains, the so called
great game continues to this day. I think China is
key to this story. The Chinese attitude has been to
buy up as much of the cobalt supply as possible,

(13:18):
and according to Nicholas, the Chinese presence in and around
Calway is palpable. The moment you step foot off the
plane so you arrive in the airport is oppressively hot.
You are jostled around. If you don't have a fixer
lined up at the airport, you're pushed to the back

(13:40):
of a customs line as everybody everybody else's shuttled in
front of you. There are at least a hundred of
people shouting in Mandarin at Congolese officials who don't understand them,
who are shouting back in French and Swahili. The airport
is a pretty intense experience. One consequent of the effective

(14:01):
Chinese ownership of cobalt mining has been to obscure the
supply chain. In some cases, even when intentioned US companies
simply cannot verify the source of the cobalt they're buying.
But as Nicholas explains, there is another more directly threatening
potential consequence. So this is something that I think that

(14:23):
Silicon Valley needs to look at very very carefully, because
they believe that they will always be able to bind
batteries from China. But if China suddenly banned the export
of Lathian iron batteries in order to favor its own companies,
then Silicon Valley would be left without a source of
power for their devices, and China would be allowed to

(14:46):
dominate in terms of production of technological apparatus. And that
is very scary to people who are concerned about human
rights and government interference, because the Chinese government doesn't have
a great record of a allowing people privacy on their devices.
As so often a situation that today appears to be
somebody else's problem, maybe our own problem tomorrow. But Nicholas

(15:10):
told me he went to Kolwayzy because he wanted to
better understand the lives of cobalt miners, and it is
their fate that centralled his reporting. So there had been
this terrible cave in when a group of artisanal miners
more than forty but perhaps many many more people died.

(15:32):
And so somebody mentioned that they knew one of the
widows of these miners, and I was taken to see
her along a dirt road, and you arrive in this
town of one two room shacks, bran Juan, and I
was taken to the backyard, and I sat there interviewing

(15:55):
this woman who was telling me about her husband who
died and what an amazing man he'd been, and you know,
how he'd supported that their family, and how his profession
was to be an artisanal minor. And then I looked
behind me and I noticed that there were some sort
of shallow troughs in the ground behind her house. And

(16:16):
I said, what are these holes in the ground and
she said, and we were digging recently, myself and my sons,
in order to look for minerals. And we took a
little walk around that area, and everybody in their backyard
had been digging to look for copper and gulbalt. And

(16:37):
I think that really sums it up for me. I
asked her, I said, you've seen how dangerous this activity is.
She explained it to me in this way, which was
that they just don't have anything to live on. They
need to survive, and this is the only way that
they can survive. They need to have some sort of
economic activity to get by, and there's absolutely no other

(16:58):
work to be done there. And that I think is
the crux of this entire story, is that this kind
of gray rock street with blue that's pulled out of
the ground in a part of the world that's very
far away from the rest of us, is sort of
transformed by a modern alchemy into this gadget with lots

(17:19):
of bells and whistles, And in the meantime, the people
who have originally dug up the gray rock are left
with very, very little when we come back. Nicholas talks
about the response to his reporting from some of the
Silicon Valley companies who rely on cobalt, and about the

(17:39):
status of the lawsuit against those companies. Throughout Sleepwalkers, it's
become clear that Silicon Valley often prefers not to think
about the human collateral of innovation, whether it's the uncompensated
translates whose work powers AHI translation, or the victims of

(18:04):
over zealous risk assessment algorithms. So I was curious to
hear from Nicholas how companies like Apple and Tesla had
responded to his reporting. I tried to speak to some
of the tech companies that were involved in this, and
they refused to speak to me on the record. Again,
I do think that Apple is trying to address these issues.

(18:27):
Do you think Tesla is trying to address these issues.
They've joined groups like the Fair Cobalt Alliance, which have
tried to improve conditions in some of the minds and
have tried to clean up the supply chain and remove
child mind cobalts from the supply chain. But yeah, they're
not very good about speaking about it publicly, and that's problematic.

(18:48):
I asked if there was anything beyond the obvious pr
and commercial imperatives that was driving Silicon Valley to continue
sweeping cobalt mining out of the carpet. This issue of
supply eye chains is something that a lot of pure
tech people probably don't want to think about because they
are involved in solving problems of a different type. But

(19:13):
without thinking about the raw fundaments of what goes into
powering that technology and creating that technology, I don't think
that we can properly feel unconflicted about all the benefits
that computers and electric cars and so on bring to
our lives in the nearer term. I wanted to know

(19:33):
about the status of the lawsuit being brought by international
rights advocates and what it might achieve. This lawsuit is
very important, and I think that if it gets to
the point of discovery, I think that we will learn
a lot about how Silicon Valley thinks about their supply chain. Currently,
the defendants of Father to dismiss the lawsuit and we'll

(19:55):
see how that goes. But I do think that it's
an important lawsuit and that through it we may be
able to learn a great deal more about this quite
obscure industry. It is the magic of the product form
to disguise its own ingredients. And there's no doubt that
between personal computers, cell phones, and electric vehicles, the Lithia

(20:17):
Mind battery has enabled tremendous good in the world. The
batteries inventors, after all, one a Nobel Prize for their research,
which quote laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel
free society. But as the human stories of cobalt mining
remind us, that innovation comes with the price. I want

(20:39):
people to understand how their choices matter, and I think
that there's a tendency to look at devices as disposable.
And I think on a very basic level, if you're
thinking about just throwing away your phone or buying a
new laptop or something like that, just just think about
where that's coming from. This will will become a political

(21:01):
issue at some point and if there are ballot measures
or politicians who stand on these issues. I think it's
important for people to understand the history of this material
and how political change can affect this very brutal cycle.

(21:22):
Sleepwalkers is hosted by me osvil Noshin and Carrot Price.
It's executive produced by me and Julian Weller is the
senior producer, and this episode was produced by Ryan Kayloth.

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