Tackling this subject was a difficult task. Who the fuck am I to think I can make a difference in the life of anyone in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Especially as I sit here in the comfort of my downtown apartment in Austin, Texas. But I am left with the feeling, I am just as much to blame for this as anyone else. The more I tried to grapple with this reality the more I became paralyzed by it. It took me days to even write a sentence. Where do I start? What would say? What would be my excuse? It was then that I realized, I had to fuckin’ own it. I needed to answer for my mistakes and try to make things better. Is the world a fucked up place, hell yeah! But the truth is some of us are here to make changes. Or at the very least make some damn noise and demand change. I definitely know my place in our future but does Elon Musk? This is a question that I have thought about over and over throughout this journey. My hope is for this article to speak directly to people like Elon Musk and all of the Western World who continue to exploit the DRC.
Everyday as I walk the streets here in Austin, I see what fiat debt slavery has done to my city, my neighborhood, my home. The countless number of homeless who beg daily on the street corner for food, for money, for their life. As a bitcoiner, I see this everyday. And because of that I wanted to stray away from the the Western perceptions and completely focus on the Congolese experience and their everyday reality. But let me start off by saying, this was difficult and hard to grasp; to even comprehend. As a first generation Mexican-American I can understand a certain type of poverty but nothing of this magnitude, no where even close.
Throughout this journey I have learned about the area and its people from independent podcasters and journalists who are on the ground covering their stories and the area day in and day out. To say that the Congolese people and its nation are exploited, is a huge understatement. Throughout history the perception of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been highly influenced by Western media which comes with its western privilege. They have shown us through “rose-tinted” lens how they want the region portrayed and seen by the world.
Let’s start with one of the most important films you can watch today, Stop Filming Us. This documentary dives into a cinematic dialogue between Western perceptions and the Congolese experience and their reality. Do we as westerners really want to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Or do Westerners only want to focus on the destruction and the many misconceptions of the region? It’s a great documentary that I highly recommend; you will learn and truly understand the region.
Elon Musk is a tyrant in the region. Let me repeat Elon Musk is a tyrant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC.) Is Elon any different than someone like Cecil Rhodes? Rhodes was a politician in South Africa and served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and South Africa’s Rhodes University was also named after him. However, one of the disgusting things Rhodes did was to use his political power to expropriate land from black Africans through the Glen Grey Act; while also tripling the wealth requirement for voting under the Franchise and Ballot Act, effectively barring black people from taking part in elections. Oh yeah, Rhodes also exploited the mines. It is no wonder why Elon Musk is going after cobalt ore; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest producer of it and he knows just like Rhodes did that abusing political power in this region effectively works.
By far the largest mines in the DRC are located in southern Katanga Province (formerly Shaba), and are highly mechanized. A capacity of several million tons per year of copper and cobalt ore, refining capability for metal ore, and with over $24 trillion dollars of fiat wealth under the ground. So who are these are the thieves that are raping this region and leaving the Congolese people with nothing? Take one guess!? While most Congolese live on less than .72 cents per day, the top 1% (i.e. Elon Musk) are making millions of fiat dollars on the backs of children in the region. Similarly, let’s look at Saudi Arabia and its natural resource, oil, who have very different results.
One of the most shameful acts Elon Musk has successfully hidden from the public is his contribution to the growing children cobalt ore mining camps. Children as young as 8 years old; yes CHILDREN are risking their lives everyday, while simultaneously being exposed to toxic dust and fearing that one day a tunnel will collapse in on them, essentially burying them alive, just to continue the mining of cobalt ore for Tesla. Elon Musk is one of the biggest thieves of the DRC. He is not just stealing and abusing the political powers of the Congolese people; but he is stunting and killing the youth of the region. Elon is effectively stunting the growth of mother Africa.
This type of exploitation is reminiscent of Leopold II, King of Belgium’s involvement with the Congo Free State. He was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State. Leopold II and Henry Morton Stanley had the audacity to lay claim to the Congo (the present-day DCR) during the Berlin Conference of 1884 –1885, which the Colonial Nations of Europe authorized his claim. Leopold II ran the Congo using the mercenary Force Publique for his personal gain. He extracted a fortune from the territory, initially with the collection of ivory by forced labour from the native population. And again with natural rubber in the 1890s when the price of natural rubber rose. Leopold’s administration of the Congo Free State was characterized by its atrocities, including torture and murder. The hands of men, women, and children were amputated when the quota of rubber was not met and millions of the Congolese people died. It was one of the worst genocides in the history of man. In 1890, George Washington Williams coined the term “crimes against humanity” to describe the practices of Leopold II in the Congo Free State.
In the East of the DCR there are many mining companies that are evading taxes; many whom are owned by western countries. The contrast between the size of the DRC’s mineral wealth and the poverty of its citizens is jarring. The DRC has a large share of the world’s reserves of cobalt ore, a highly sought-after minerals, which essentially is a key raw material for rechargeable batteries. Its mining sector sits at the heart of the economy, constituting over 90% of exports, yet the visible benefits to the Congolese citizens are few.
Corruption cannot bring development. The Congolese peasants are forced to go into these informal areas with picks and shovels and dig, they dig all day for the deposits; not to mention many of which have radioactive Uranium in them. Each and every individual will have toxic levels of radioactive exposure. These individuals are using their bare hands while breathing in the dust because there is no PPE provided, none what so ever. Their days consist of digging and filling sacks and sacks of stones that contain cobalt, which then is processed or as they like to phrase it the “Artisanal Process” (more on this later) takes place. It flows to this informal marketplace then into the formal supply chain. When this flow happens something is clearly noticed. There is this layer of informality of traders. Where buying houses that sit in-between the child labor mining camps, the Congolese peasant labor, the forced militia labor and the big mining companies all trade in this marketplace. The Congolese people have to earn money and so trade occurs. People like Elon Musk should not be allowed to continue to profit off the backs of children or forced labor.
Over and over you will hear the word “Artisanal Mining” (like it’s something special or handcrafted) don’t be fooled by the word there’s nothing quaint or artisanal about it. You are transported back centuries to a time when mining involved brute interaction with the Earth by digging of tunnels and being covered in dirt and filth. In the worst cases because it is so “Artisanal” low-tech tunnels that the villagers must dig in order to get to the deposits. However these tunnels do not have supports or beams or even tractors like those big mining companies. So when you go up against nature things don’t go your way so easily, sometimes they just collapse. And by collapse, I mean literally, the tunnels collapse all the time and anyone who is down there will perish. They will be buried alive and suffocate to death. That is the cost of your Tesla batteries.
By this point you are likely wondering there has to be a law against this or some kind of committee like the United Nations or the U.S. who has stepped in to combat this type of behavior. Well kind of, in June 2009 President Barack Obama introduced a proposal for a “sweeping overhaul of the United States financial regulatory system, a transformation on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.” This legislation was known as the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Did this really do anything? I guess that is for the history books to decide. In fact I can tell you it did nothing and quite obviously. They left out cobalt ore as a conflict material, isn’t that convenient? Elon Musk knows how to play the game. He is the king of this type of misdirection and disguise. It’s no wonder people call him the King of Memes. Whenever he is asked about cobalt ore he completely changes the conversation to lithium and nickel and discusses its properties. He will say something to the likes of, “ The nice thing about lithium is it‘s extremely abundant on Earth and is the third most common element in the universe. There is lithium in salt form virtually everywhere. There is definitely no supply issues with lithium. But most of our batteries are made mostly with nickel and we only use like 2% of lithium. So technically are cells should be called nickel graphite, we also have a little bit of aluminum and cobalt.” He threw out numbers and made you think of the elements, universe, salt, numbers, percentages and threw in cobalt as an afterthought, not so much as the main issue at hand. But here is the hard truth; there are five primary lithium battery combinations for Electric Vehicles, each with pros and cons:
- Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum (NCA)
- Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC)
- Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO)
- Lithium Titanate (LTO)
- Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP)
From the plethora of lithium-ion battery compositions, Electric Vehicle manufacturers prefer the lithium-cobalt combination. As a result, NCA batteries are the most prevalent in Tesla Vehicles. Cobalt’s high energy density allows Tesla batteries to pack more energy in smaller spaces, making them lightweight and powerful at the same time. As Elon likes to say, they will take us to Mars. In addition, cobalt’s ability to withstand high temperatures increases the safety and reliability of Tesla vehicles because no one deserves to die on autopilot.
Although cobalt ore may be associated with unethical mining practices, it still remains essential to Tesla which is why they have an agreement to buy 6,000 tonnes of cobalt annually from the mining giant Glencore. So who is Glencore? They are a mining company who is committed to preventing the occurrence of modern slavery and human trafficking in their operations and supply chains. They really want to stop all of the cobalt child mining camps. So much so that they have made a PDF on their website telling you about their “Modern slavery statement.” Because they will be ESG compliant, reduce net zero total emissions and stop child slavery by 2050 no matter what!
They literally say the following, “Neither Glencore nor any of its associates or directors, officers or advisers, provides any representation, assurance or guarantee that the occurrence of the events expressed or implied in any forward-looking statements in this document will actually occur. You are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements which only speak as of the date of this document. Except as required by applicable regulations or by law, Glencore is not under any obligation and Glencore and its affiliates expressly disclaim any intention, obligation or undertaking, to update or revise any forward looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise. This document shall not, under any circumstances, create any implication that there has been no change in the business or affairs of Glencore since the date of this document or that the information contained herein is correct as at any time subsequent to its date.” It is hilarious because this pdf doesn’t mean anything, it is just 32 pages of bullshit with the caveat that this notice is “null and void” of everything you just read. It is straight PR bullshit.
So yes, Tesla can say they are targeting cobalt-free batteries and yes Tesla will initially use CATL’s lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells for its standard range Model 3 and Y vehicles that will be produced in Shanghai. But they are still dependent on cobalt and so is Glencore and both are not moving away from it anytime soon. Cobalt Child Mining Camps will continue to exist.
Harvard professor and on the ground Journalist reporting from the DRC Siddharth Kara, is spreading awareness of the modern slavery happening in the cobalt mining industry in the DRC. He goes on to describe, “What I’ve seen in the Congo is hell on Earth. There are children caked in grime and filth, digging in pits and tunnels to excavate cobalt containing ore. The ore gets processed and refined and sent up into the formal supply chain to smartphone makers and EV manufacturers around the world.”
The hard truth is 60% of the world's supply of cobalt ore comes from the Congo and it is mined in horrific conditions that involve massive environmental destruction, child labor mines, tremendous amount of injuries to many of the poorest in the region as well as many deaths due to tunnel collapses, toxic exposures and even violence from militia controlled mining camps. It is the most extreme and sharp example of human slavery on planet Earth. Right now Elon Musk doesn’t care enough to fix this. Glencore doesn’t care enough to fix this. The reason they both don’t care is simply because of the wide asymmetry share of value at the top of the cobalt chain and the pennies that are sprinkled down to the bottom of this chain. Quite frankly it's disgusting and is utter inhumanity.
One thing we are seeing is litigation. Thanks to people like Siddharth Kara, he was able to get a humanitarian lawyer to file a suit against Tesla.
Tesla was sued in December 2019 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for “knowingly benefiting” from children mining at sites owned by Glencore and other mining companies, a claim Glencore has denied. Plaintiffs in the case filed an amended complaint June 26, 2020 targeting Tesla’s deal with Glencore and stated they will seek details of the arrangement in discovery. Even if these cases are unsuccessful, the simple fact that people are being heard for the first time is amazing. We are exposing what is going on and that is a win for the people of the DRC.
Which is why organizations setting due diligence standards for mining also have a role to play and not this bullshit, “Our commitment to addressing modern slavery” PR stunt by Glencore. Real hard change. We need tangible results with actual penalties for these mining companies, and for them that is their bottom line, that is right where it hurts the most. Or maybe Elon can do something? Yes, this world is a fucked up place. This is true but there are some of us that can make a change for the better or can at least attempt to demand change. Right now what we are seeing in the DRC is an imbalance of power from the top of the supply chain, through all the complexity that comes with this region and the lack of state regulation. Elon is still refusing to take on the problem head first. Responsibility must come from the top. I definitely know my place in this order which is why I am sounding the alarm but does Elon Musk? Some people will say, “We shouldn’t expect Elon to destroy or take on the Western system or ‘chop the branch that which he sits on.’” You are absolutely right but I expect him to create a new system and put a strategy in place to fix this atrocity. Let’s be honest he has a tremendous amount of resources at his disposal and what a coincidence, he also happens to own a tunneling company, named Boring Company. Honestly what more could he need to be the change?
We released second episode of Thriller Bitcoin for this article. Make sure to check out the related episode.