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The fight for Congo's cobalt

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hidden inside your smartphone, your laptop, your electric car is the metal cobalt, an ingredient crucial for a rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and other renewable energy sources. Much of the world's cobalt comes from deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo - a country with abundant natural resources and a country that's historically attracted greed and grifters from foreign powers. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei co-host NPR's history show, Throughline, and they bring us a story about the fight for Congo's resources and the human toll it takes to extract them. A warning - this story includes graphic descriptions of violence.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratically elected prime minister after almost five decades of Belgian rule. Lumumba hoped to usher in a new era for his country, which had some of the world's most valuable natural resources, and he wanted to make sure that the DRC had control over them. But it wouldn't be that simple.

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ABDELFATAH: In the span of days, one of the most resource-rich provinces seceded from the Congo with the help of Belgium.

SIDDHARTH KHARA: Well, 11 days after independence, the Belgians chopped off the mining province from the rest of the Congo with an army of the mining provinces in Katanga.

ABDELFATAH: This is Siddharth Khara, a professor at the University of Nottingham in England who studies modern-day slavery.

KHARA: Lumumba - he's got a country that's now been free for 11 days from Belgian colonialism, and they go and take over the entire engine of his economy with an army.

ABDELFATAH: Lumumba turned to the United Nations for help, but Belgian troops remained.

KHARA: The Congo was completely crippled.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Lumumba's rhetoric and economic plans had landed him the label of Communist from many Western intelligence services.

ABDELFATAH: With options running low, Lumumba next turned to the Soviet Union.

KHARA: Well, the prospect that the Congo's enormous mineral treasures would flow towards the Soviet Union and not continue flowing to Europe and the West sent shivers down the spines of the neocolonial powers in Western Europe and the United States.

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ARABLOUEI: This was all happening during the Cold War, and Congo had huge deposits of a specific resource that played a very important role - uranium, a vital ingredient in nuclear weapons. And the U.S. was not going to let uranium from Congo be sold to the Soviet Union.

KHARA: And in short order, they hatched a plot to assassinate Patrice Lumumba. First, they were going to try and kill him with poison toothpaste. And when that didn't work, the U.S. basically said to the Belgians, take him to your stronghold in Katanga and get rid of the guy. Lumumba was captured and flown to the Katanga capital. He was tortured. He was killed. They chopped him into pieces. They dissolved his body parts in acid so nothing could ever be found, except for one tooth that was held as a souvenir by one of the Belgian assassins.

ABDELFATAH: Lumumba was in power for only 2 1/2 months. The U.S. and Belgium then supported another Congolese leader, Joseph Mobutu. He would become a dictator that ruled the country with an iron fist. He changed the country's name to Zaire, and he would be friendly to Western business interests, especially when it came to natural resources. He would never sell uranium to the Soviet Union.

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KHARA: Lumumba's assassination taught Africa a lesson. You either play ball, or we'll chop you up and find someone who will.

ARABLOUEI: Mobutu controlled Congo for 30 years after Lumumba's assassination. That would end in 1997 after rebels forced him to flee. And right around the same time, another revolution was taking place - a technological revolution that would once again make Congo the center of the world economy.

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ABDELFATAH: More and more rechargeable electronics, like MP3 players, laptops and calculators, started hitting the market, and all of these items required natural resources to work - a natural resource Congo had a lot of - cobalt.

KHARA: It's used in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries in order to maximize their energy density while retaining thermal stability. That means it allows the battery to hold the maximum amount of charge without catching on fire.

ARABLOUEI: Longer-lasting charge on a portable device - the holy grail of electronics. Lithium batteries, many fueled by cobalt, allowed for the rapid market takeover of laptops and iPods. But another device was coming that would completely change the world.

KHARA: Towards 2007, 8, 9, when the smartphones started coming out, then tablets, there was this uptick in demand for rechargeable batteries. And then - so then the demand for cobalt started to pick up.

ABDELFATAH: Pick up is an understatement. As more people around the world were buying smartphones, the demand grew exponentially.

KHARA: When I talk to people in the Congo, they would say, you know, it really started to explode in, like, 2012. That's when there was just this sudden geometric explosion in demand. And that's also around when electric vehicles started to take off.

ARABLOUEI: The batteries in electric cars use a lot of cobalt, and electric cars are seen by many as the key to cutting vehicle emissions and the impacts of climate change.

KHARA: And as a consequence, the lives of the people living in that part of the Congo just descended into just a catastrophe.

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ABDELFATAH: Today, over 70% of the world's cobalt supply comes from the DRC. It's an industry worth billions that's expected to more than double between now and 2030. But bearing the weight of this industry are poor Congolese children and adults who often work in dangerous, even deadly environments for meager wages.

KHARA: So you can survive today doing this hazardous work, getting the cobalt out of the ground, or you can not eat today. And so now you've got this enormous labor force of people desperate to survive who will work for that dollar a day. And if they get injured or develop cancer from toxic exposure, or they die in a pit wall collapse or whatever, well, there's another 10,000 people behind them. And that's why there's so much downward pressure on the cost of cobalt - is because of this, essentially, captive, in essence, modern-day slave labor force.

CHANG: That was Siddharth Khara speaking with Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can hear their whole story about the historic fight over the DRC's resources on the Throughline podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
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