Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives offers another view of the Mutoshi artisanal mining pilot site discussed in Dorothée Baumann-Pauly’s recent white paper. Kara draws many of the same broad conclusions as Baumann-Pauly:
There were several improvements at the Mutoshi mine compared to other artisanal mining sites in the [Democratic Republic of Congo], especially for female workers. Women endured constant harassment and sexual assault at most of the sites I documented. They received pitiful wages for their work and were still expected to run their households and manage children. Even if they were earning anemic wages at [Mutoshi], the reduction in sexual assault was a considerable improvement in their lives. Supplying clean water, toilets, and at least some protective gear also helped mitigate illness and toxic exposure. The mine was not crawling with children or visibly pregnant women. There also did not appear to be any sort of tunnel digging, which prevented the worst tragedies from occurring.
Other parts of Kara’s discussion are hard to reconcile with this picture. Kara has been led to expect that pilot sites like Mutoshi provide “ironclad assurances” that cobalt supply chains are “untainted by child labor or other abuses.” He is disappointed (but not surprised) when he discovers lax oversight and neglect:
Based on everything I saw and heard during my tour of the Mutoshi mine, as well as my subsequent interviews with artisanal miners who worked at the site, the conditions at the…model site did not match what I had been told by some of the [Washington, DC-based NGO] Pact staff in Kolwezi. Specifically, there appeared to be child-mined cobalt entering Mutoshi through the spaghetti-wire fence. Teenagers worked at the site with fake voter registration cards. The radiation officer was not regularly checking radiation levels. Bags of cobalt were not tagged, and cobalt from unknown origins was purchased from external depots and mixed at [a] refining facility in Lubumbashi. Crucially, reduced or delayed wage payments appeared to be a major disincentive for many artisanal miners and was compromising the viability of the entire operation. The purported supply chain transparency and traceability turned out to be a fiction.
For Kara, this fiction is part of ”a shrewd scheme of obfuscation adorned with hypocritical proclamations about the preservation of human rights”; and it is “the latest in a long history of ‘enormous and atrocious’ lies that have tormented the people of the Congo.”
Kara is quoting Joseph Conrad there, and Heart of Darkness is one of the texts to which he returns throughout the book: “spend a short time watching the filth-caked children of the Katanga region scrounge at the earth for cobalt, and you would be unable to determine whether they were working for the benefit of [King] Leopold [II of Belgium] or a tech company.” His emulation of writers like Conrad and Morel, his eagerness to draw historical parallels, and his tendency to dramatize some of his encounters in the Congo all make Cobalt Red both powerful and unsettling – and not least because this kind of writing raises some questions about the narrator’s reliability.
That observation does not discredit or diminish the importance of the account of artisanal mining in Cobalt Red. To the contrary: it’s a place to start engaging with the book and the inherent difficulties of Kara’s project. I’m still grappling with it, and taking some notes to illustrate the point, so I am not going to address it right now.
For the moment, and by way of wrapping up the discussion of Mutoshi, I’ll point out that Kara fails to mention that the Mutoshi pilot was shut down “just a few months” after his September 2019 visit in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (as Baumann-Pauly notes). Kara attributes its closure instead to a failure of “will,” which he casts as a betrayal: the withdrawal of CHEMAF or Chemicals of Africa from the pilot program. I hope to have more to say about all this at some point soon.