How Is Your Phone Powered? Problematically. – by Matthieu Aikins (New York Times – January 23, 2023)

Siddharth Kara’s “Cobalt Red” takes a deep dive into the horrors of mining the valuable mineral — and the many who benefit from others’ suffering.

Cobalt, a mineral essential to the batteries of smart devices and electric vehicles — and therefore to the future — is haunted by a past of slavery and colonialism. The phone in your hand contains several grams of this element; some of it, as Siddharth Kara shows in “Cobalt Red,” was likely mined by people hacking away in toxic pits for subsistence wages.

Used as a source of blue pigment since antiquity, cobalt has joined blood diamonds and forced-labor shrimp as the latest bête noire of critics of globalization. Nearly half of the world’s reserves are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a conflict-stricken country that has long been the site of a geopolitical scramble for strategic resources.

Human rights abuses and child labor are rife in Congo’s mining sector; in 2016, Amnesty International and the watchdog group Afrewatch put out a report that tied companies like Apple and Samsung to exploitatively mined cobalt. The industry promised reforms, but since then the demand for cobalt has only grown. Kara sets out to investigate what, if anything, has changed.

A lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Kara has written on sex trafficking and other forms of so-called modern slavery, part of a new group of abolitionists who claim explicit parallels with the historical fight against the slave trade.

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