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Our Bloody Phones: Exploitative Mining Practices

By Viviana Corbisiero


If you knew that the parts making up your new Tesla, Google Pixel or Macbook Air originated from the bloody minefields of Sub-Saharan Africa, would it be reason for you to slow down your purchasing behavior?


Serious humanitarian problems have arisen from the sophisticated cobalt mining scenario in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


Cobalt, a metallic element used in various industries, is needed by the tech industry for electric vehicles, computers, telephones and other devices.


“It is a massive problem because technology is not decreasing it is increasing even more so that people buy more and more,” said Betsy Pimentel, senior translation major. “What will happen if they do not produce cobalt anymore?”


Experts estimate that the “DRC’s soil may hold some 3.7 million tons of cobalt — close to half of the world’s supply,” according to CBS News.


CBS News reported in December that many unofficial, modest cobalt miners work in the DRC, usually employing poor equipment and not enough appropriate safety gear.


As a result, these mines can be dangerous. Accidents, collapses and exposure to dangerous substances happen frequently.


Additionally, the DRC’s cobalt mining industry has been connected to multiple human rights violations, including child labor. Young people who work as miners are frequently put in long shifts and in unsafe environments for little pay. Some estimates have the age of youngsters working as miners at seven years old.


Carla Davila, a master’s student in sport psychology, believes it is a sad reality for the underaged workers in the DRC.


“Almost everyone just buys phones, and they will never think about the children working in the mines,” she said. “People do not care about that because we are all addicted to our devices, and we could never just stop [buying] it.”


Since most Americans, especially students and remote workers, rely on the convenience of digital and electric products, this actually increases the demand for the metal and fosters abuse, conflict and inhumane working conditions in cobalt mines in the DRC.


Additionally, the fact that big tech companies usually depend on complex and transparent supply chains makes it difficult to determine the origin of the cobalt used in their products.


“We all know what is happening in Congo and to the people building our phones, but we care more about our material than them. Always the rich win over people and the industries takes advantage of the poor people in everything,” said Clara Versier, a senior biology major. “So, yeah, governments need to do something, but what can we do? Stop buying phones? Will never happen.”


Perhaps not. However, there are several ways that individuals and groups can aid the Congolese people affected by cobalt mining:


Inform people about the abuses of human rights and the damage that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mining industry does to the environment.


Apply pressure to technology firms to ensure that there is no mistreatment in their chain of custody and to support projects that encourage the ethical purchase of cobalt.

Look for products that have been confirmed to come from ethical sources or donate to organizations who are working to improve the working circumstances for miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Donate money or volunteer your time to organizations that support, educate and resource communities affected by cobalt mining.


By discussing this issue with the Barry community, students can consider the ethical implications of their reliance on technology and come up with ideas on ways to encourage more moral behavior in the IT industry.


They can also discuss the broader concerns regarding the global supply chain and how consumer demand is related to human rights and environmental impacts in resource-rich regions like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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