Miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo face few protections in the global rush for metals for the energy transition—as well as a toxic legacy from a previous rush to mine for nuclear weapons.
Serge Langunu is a graduate student in botany at the University of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In May, he and I were sitting on a bench in the parking lot of a hospital just outside Lubumbashi’s downtown, looking at photos of plants on his laptop.
I met Langunu at the hospital to see an experimental plot of metal-loving plants cultivated by the university’s agronomy department. This understated garden was growing in the shadow of a massive chimney, looming across the street in the mostly abandoned grounds of the old copper smelter named after the state mining corporation, Gécamines.
Lubumbashi is Congo’s second-largest city and the capital of Katanga province, founded in 1910 by the Belgian colonial regime to exploit Katanga’s otherworldly mineral wealth. For about 80 years, the smoke from the smelting of ore from the Étoile du Congo copper mine drifted out of that chimney over the homes of mine workers and their families on the west side of the Lubumbashi River, while mine administrators and other colonial officers enjoyed the cleaner air on the other side.
As a result, the soil at the hospital and throughout the surrounding neighborhood is heavily contaminated with copper, cobalt, lead, zinc, and arsenic.
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