The world is embracing renewable technologies but how much do we know about the metals that are powering this green revolution?
This story exposes the shocking truth about the mining of cobalt, a metal crucial to making the batteries in electric cars, laptops and mobile phones.
The world’s richest deposits of cobalt are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest countries on earth.
It produces around 70% of world output.
This buried treasure has lured hundreds of thousands of Congolese to work in the country’s mines, big and small.
But mining is dangerous, corruption and violence is rife and though child labour has been banned, it’s common.
In recent years, the cobalt trade has been taken over by Chinese companies which operate or finance 15 of the 19 big industrial mines.
Locals say that under their management, low safety standards have dropped even further.
“Unfortunately people even are dying for lack of safety,” says an employee of one big company.
Australian reporter Michael Davie travels to this mineral-rich country to investigate the industry – from the major Chinese-owned companies to the conditions of the small-scale workers on the fringes of the big mines.
It’s a dangerous mission and Davie is followed, harassed and arrested by mine and government security officials.
What he uncovers is shocking. The day he arrives there’s been a mine cave-in, killing at least six miners.
He sees miners tunnel 25 metres underground with no safety equipment.
He meets primary school-age children handling cobalt, a toxic metal which can cause serious health effects.
He meets a mother whose 13-year-old son has just been killed on the fringes of a mine whose embankment collapsed.
Companies in the Congo are obliged to make sure they don’t harm the communities around them.
He secures a video which shows a man being beaten by a Congolese soldier as mine managers watch on, laughing.
And he interviews a whistleblower who accuses the Chinese mine he works for of covering up the deaths of co-workers.
He also says the country isn’t benefitting from the boom.
“There is no investment coming back in terms of environment, infrastructure…
We don’t have road facilities, we don’t have communication.
There is nothing.”
But there’s hope amidst the gloom.
Davie meets the Good Shepherd Sisters, nuns who’ve set up a school near the mines and educated thousands of children.
“If the children are given education, if schools are spread all over and every child goes to school, then we are redeeming this country,” says one nun.
This is a rare insight into a powerful industry which operates a dangerous business with seeming impunity.
All of us use the end products.
About Foreign Correspondent: Foreign Correspondent is the prime-time international public affairs program on Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC-TV.
We produce half-hour duration in-depth reports for broadcast across the ABC’s television channels and digital platforms.
Since 1992, our teams have journeyed to more than 170 countries to report on war, natural calamity and social and political upheaval – through the eyes of the people at the heart of it all.