Letters to the Editor

Toxic Minerals

“Please tell the people in your country,” a Congolese translator said to Siddharth Kara, author of Cobalt Red, as he struggled to describe the horrific human rights violations in his country. “A child in the Congo dies every day so that [your people] can plug in their phones.”

In the previous issue of the Beachcomber, Dr. Phillip A. Fields wrote about the environmental impact of the mining and processing of toxic minerals, including cobalt, to create the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries necessary to power our phones, laptops, electric cars, etc. It is true that the environmental impact is disgusting and appalling – millions of trees have been clear-cut, the earth gouged and gashed – but let’s also not overlook the human toll of the world’s insatiable demand for the products which require these now-ubiquitous batteries.

This demand was created and continues to be cultivated by major electronics corporations, making tons of money via planned obsolescence and engineered social pressure to always have the very latest and greatest phone, which by the way can change almost monthly. And it all comes at the cost of human lives.

Congolese children are dying by the thousands, digging for cobalt on their hands and knees with hand-held trowels in tunnels far below the earth’s surface, breathing in toxic dust with no protective equipment, sometimes crushed and buried alive by collapsing tunnel walls.

They are dying just to make sure we get to buy our precious phones, which do everything except (so far) wipe your ass. Those children fortunate enough to survive to dig another day are paid fifty cents to one dollar daily, and then only if the quality and quantity of the cobalt they have dug that day is satisfactory. Otherwise, they get nothing.

Until a substitute power source is found, the least we can do as fellow humans is to reduce demand by keeping our smartphones and other devices even just a year or two longer than the big corporations have designed for us to desire, rather than bending to the bombardment of their constant advertisements to upgrade: the siren song of the “must-have” new phone, released only months after you absolutely had to have the previous one, which has now been rendered old and uncool.

After a while, every new smartphone starts to look like a tombstone. As a Congolese “digger” named Josué is quoted as saying in Kara’s book: “We work in our graves.”

Merry Colvin


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