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The plight of the cobalt-mining children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may make you rethink your relationship with your smartphone

By Nina Steele 

Cobalt-mining children in DR Congo

Photograph: Sky News

The Democratic Republic of the Congo was once called Zaire. As a country, Zaire was influential throughout the whole of Africa, in great part because its brand of music was the dance music of choice for many Africans. These were reasonably happy times, even though the country was run by a dictator. At least, there was peace. A far cry from the chaos and anarchy we have come to associate with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The change of name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will always be remembered by many Africans of my generation, as the moment when the country descended into the mess that it is today. It was after the overthrow of then President, Mobutu Sese Seko, in May 1997. Ever since, many factions have been vying for power and for control of the vast mineral wealth that has sadly become more of a curse than an asset.

The country is “considered to be one of the world’s richest countries in natural resources. Its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of US $24 trillion”. It is “the world’s largest producer of cobalt”. That cobalt is an essential part in the batteries that power our smartphones could have, alongside the other minerals, made the country rich beyond measure. Instead, because of the instability, it is making things worse.

Cobalt-mining children of DR Congo

Photograph: Sky News

That the country is one of the poorest in the world, in spite of its vast mineral wealth, has led to the proliferation of illegal mines. With demand for cobalt at an all-time high because of the popularity of smartphones, more and more children are being used in mining. The conditions in which they operate are dire to say the least. Earlier this year, Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford, reported on the plight of those children, some of whom are said to be as young as 4.

The documentary was simply heartbreaking. It made me question whether I should keep upgrading my phone every 22 months as my current deal with my network provider allows me to do. Even before her report, I had come across a video on social media urging people not to upgrade their phones as often, precisely because of what’s happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because, not only are we inadvertently complicit in the continuous exploitation of children, we are also encouraging untold damage to the environment, through the proliferation of illegal mines.

Of course, it will take more than that to improve the lives of the children involved. But at least, a concerted effort by millions of us around the globe, may force corporations to do more to discourage the use of children in mining.

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