The rise in global demand for cobalt, an essential component of the lithium-ion batteries found in electronics and electric vehicles, should bring prosperity to the people of resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, as has been the status quo for generations, growing demand for limited resources has meant little benefit for the historically troubled country’s ordinary citizens. As demand for the metal continues to soar, cobalt miners have been met with exploitative and illegal industry practices- including wide-spread child labor.
A pilot program, using blockchain technology, could trace the material from the source through the supply chain to instill much-needed accountability in cobalt production.
Lack of Accountability
A recent report by Amnesty International and African Research Watch alleges that world leaders in electronics and automobiles are neglecting basic checks to ensure that cobalt is sourced without the use of exploitative practices. Big names including Apple, Samsung, Sony, Volkswagen, and twelve other multinationals are indicted in the report. Mark Dummet, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International illustrates the crux of the problem-
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made. It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.”
According to the US Geological survey, 66,000 of the 123,000 metric tons of cobalt was mined in the DRC. Conditions in the cobalt mines offer stark contrasts to finely designed, sleek products in which the lustrous, grey metal is integral.
Miners, with little protective equipment, work exhaustive hours with little pay. They risk injury, long-term health issues, and death in the little-regulated cobalt mines. The report noted 80 miners dying in the underground mines from September 2014 to December 2015, with likely many times more remaining unreported.
According to a 2014 report by UNICEF 40,000 children were estimated to be working the mines in southern parts of DRC, the majority in the cobalt industry. In the Amnesty International report, children reported being forced to work 12 hour days underground for $1-2 a day.
A pilot program has been developed and is aimed to bring accountability to the industry. Though some companies such as Apple and Samsung have already joined a Responsible Cobalt Initiative, accountability is difficult in the DRC where appropriate institutions are lacking or non-existent.
Taking a cue from the diamond industry, the cobalt industry plans to use blockchain’s distributed ledger to offer some assurances for consumers, though researchers admit it may be difficult given the economic and political realities in the Congo.
“We are prototyping, iterating, testing, scaling…. The technology is not the hard part,” explained Sheila Warren, head of Blockchain Policy at the World Economic Forum.
The proposal intends to provide every bag of verified, artisanally produced cobalt an immutable digital identity. This allows it to be recorded by various actors along the supply chain, from at-site observers all the way to the smelting facility, and on to the end consumer.
As smartphones become ubiquitous and the electric car revolution gears up, it alludes to the possibility of a more connected, open, and cleaner world. But, as is often the case in globalized production, those benefits do not currently extend to the most vulnerable populations. With the advent of blockchain based accountability measures, the veil that separates consumers from the workers that make technological innovations possible may be beginning to lift.