Green Blood

I’ve flown over the Congo many times, but I’ve never been tempted to land.

Ever since Belgium’s King Leopold and his acolytes raped and pillaged the country, the Congo has a tragic history of misdeeds.

Sixteen years ago, the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond painted a dark picture of the international gem trade, using Sierra Leone—Lion Mountain—to cast light on a heady mix of diamonds, weapons, and war.

The story of valuable commodities, the weapons they buy, and the wars that result from them are an African paradigm—the richer the country, the poorer its people. The Democratic Republic of Congo—I’m always suspicious when the D word is part of the country’s name—has a per capita GDP of 560 US dollars; Greece, the lamest duck in the EU, has almost eighteen grand—double Turkey and half of Italy.

Like any country where governance is just a long word, the DRC has a huge swathe of folks—eighty percent of the poor—working informal jobs.

Out of the population of ninety million, eighty percent are poor, which means that around sixty-five percent work outside the tax circuit—well over half the Congolese are off the grid.

The wealth of the Congo lies in minerals, be they diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, or coltan. The last two ‘C’s are the icing on the cake—coltan for extracting tantalum, used to build capacitors for cellphones, laptops, and car electronics, and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, the darlings of the green revolution.

The worst possible scenario for electric vehicles, where the battery is made in China (i.e. a large carbon footprint) and the car is driven in Poland, where electricity is produced in outdated coal-fired plants. If the best case is considered, where both battery manufacture and driving takes place across the Baltic in Sweden, electric cars emit 80% less carbon dioxide than their hydrocarbon brethren.

Historically, mining has been the province of Western companies—sixty percent of miners are quoted on the Canadian stock exchanges, either Vancouver or Toronto—but over the last two decades, the Chinese have come to town.

China is well ahead of the US when it comes to sourcing cobalt—both Obama and the Orange Man missed the boat on this one. Companies such as China Molybdenum own vast assets in the DRC, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. A mine worker makes under four dollars a day and the cobalt is used for batteries that power Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes cars.

Ironically, cobalt is used to stop batteries igniting but its stock price is on fire—in the five years before 2016, one metric ton cost less that $35,000, right now it sets you back almost ninety grand.

Since you can find cobalt anywhere in parts of the DRC, one of the key sources is artisanal mining, performed by ordinary people who have no training in mineral extraction—they are ‘creuseurs‘, who hard-scrabble the chocolate-brown powder out of the ground.

One guy in Kolwezi, a southern Congolese city near Angola, was digging a latrine inside his home in 2014 when eight feet down he struck… chocolate. What he found was a rock called heterogenite—I suppose the name means a mixed bag—that can be refined into cobalt.

He proceeded to create a mini-mine inside his house—rented house, that is, and you thought putting up pictures was evil—and started a profitable business selling cobalt. When his vertical seam ran out, he expanded his subterranean gilt goose sideways and tunneled below the neighbors—by the time the landlord caught up with him, his tenant had flown the coop, or in this case the mine, and was by Congolese standards a very wealthy man.

The president of the DRC, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, meeting with the CEO of CMOC, Sun Ruiwen, plus brainy-hotty interpreter, two days before Christmas 2021—and a Merry Xmas to all.

Although not always this creative (home is where the shaft is), artisanal miners, like bitcoin enthusiasts, are beavering away as we speak, to bring us the chocolate we so badly need.

Right now, climate change is taking us into yet another (un)virtuous cycle of “exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship“, much like the discoveries of the XVth century.

The building blocks of the oil economy are the hydrocarbons in the Mid-East, where vast Western conglomerates still have much to say.

For our new toys, we need nickel, lithium, copper, and cobalt. In the case of cobalt, over sixty percent comes from the DRC and (go figure) an equivalent proportion is processed in the Middle Kingdom.

The Western World is building a new green economy around resources it no longer controls.

China won’t make the same mistake.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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