E.D. Morel and the dangerous “blood cobalt” narrative
On a forested hill outside the Belgian capital, King Leopold II built a vast monument to his brutal colonial enterprise in the Congo.
The marbled halls of his “museum” housed statues of heroic-looking Belgian colonizers, busts of generals and administrators and a memorial to more than 1,500 European “pioneers” who died in the earliest days of the colony. But they contained not even a single reference to the many millions of Congolese who lost their lives as a result of King Leopold’s takeover of the vast country, and cruel extraction of its natural riches for his personal gain.
Opened in 1910, the museum has in recent years had a makeover, in an attempt to present a more balanced view, as well as positive images of Congolese people and culture. Some of the statues have been removed, others covered over. Today, in a new gallery dedicated to “Colonial History and Independence”, visitors will even come across a small paperback book, with faded lettering, and a bizarre cover illustration of an Egyptian god measuring the weight of a pharaoh, who resembles Leopold II, against that of a dismembered hand. The hand weighs heavier.
The book’s title is “Red Rubber: The Story of the Rubber Slave Trade on the Congo”. It was written by the campaigner E.D. Morel in 1906. Morel was a heroic figure. Working as a clerk in a shipping agent in the English port city of Liverpool, he had kept track of boats carrying goods to and from the grotesquely misnamed Congo Free State. This had become King Leopold’s personal possession in 1885, as western European powers carved up Africa into rival colonial territories.
Morel began to notice that boat after boat went to central Africa carrying guns but returned with valuable cargoes of rubber, and he asked himself why. His investigation eventually helped to inspire the campaign that brought light to the atrocities taking place in Congo and end Leopold’s personal rule over the country in 1908.
The title of Morel’s book refers to the brutal means used by Leopold’s agents to force Congolese villagers to harvest wild rubber growing in the rainforest. Facing bankruptcy, Leopold ordered his agents to meet ever more stringent collection targets, and the toll on the Congolese became much worse. They chopped off many people’s hands. Leopold became (by today’s standards) a billionaire.
That the book now sits behind glass in the palace built by the discredited king to honour his dreadful project is fitting.
But this is not just a museum piece. Morel’s book continues to inspire, and has echoes in today’s debates about another raw material being produced for the auto industry. Its rubber had been used for car tyres. Now, car companies need the cobalt mined in what is known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 70 percent of the word’s reserves of this critical mineral are contained there. It is used in the batteries that power electric vehicles, as well as those in laptops, mobile phones and other gadgets.
In 2016, I was a researcher with Amnesty International as we documented, along with the Congolese NGO Afrewatch, how children as young as eight were involved in mining for cobalt, and conditions for them and the adult miners in so-called “artisanal”, informal mines, were exploitative and hazardous. We traced the supply chains of leading western tech and auto makers to these mines via Chinese intermediaries and showed how they were failing to respond appropriately.
Seven years after our report came out, there is a growing interest in this issue. The world needs to urgently end its reliance on fossil fuels, and batteries will play a central role in the energy transition. This will require much more cobalt mining. Many people are rightly asking, “at what cost?”
Morel wrote about “Red Rubber”. Now, according to a recent article published by Bloomberg and the Washington Post, we need to be aware of the “Blood Batteries” that use Congolese cobalt. There has been substantial media interest too in a new book entitled “Cobalt Red”, by Siddharth Kara, a US academic and activist.
This renewed focus on conditions in mines in the DRC is welcome. In fact later this year Amnesty International will also release new research looking into human rights abuses linked to mines there. There is undoubted human suffering and abuses that need alleviating, and those responsible held to account — including those in global companies at the end of the supply chain.
But how accurate is this new wave of reporting? The Bloomberg/Washington Post article falsely links cobalt mining to a conflict 1000 Kms away. Kara describes cobalt mines as a “hellscape.” When E.D. Morel wrote “Red Rubber”, he exposed a brutal economic system that may have resulted in the death of millions of people. In the 1990s, campaigners referred to “blood diamonds” that fuelled terrible wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Cobalt mining is undoubtedly dangerous, dirty and exploitative, but it does not bear comparison to either of those contexts.
My concern is how these arguments are currently being deployed by certain actors, most prominently in the US, to advance their own interests. There are those using the situation in the DRC, (and involvement of Chinese businesses there), to argue that more cobalt mining, processing and battery manufacturing needs to take place in the US. And there is also the fossil fuel lobby that cynically uses Congo to attack the shift to electric vehicles as unethical.
These are wholly-self serving arguments. Any truly ethical response to this problem would not support disengagement from the DRC or involve the boycotts of its cobalt. Congolese civil society is not calling for this, nor are workers at industrial mine sites who rely on the income that the mines provide. For hundreds of thousands of impoverished men, women and children, artisanal cobalt mining is a lifeline. None of the children or their parents I spoke to wanted them to work in the mines. They needed to in order to eat. Collapsing the market for this mineral would only make them, and their country poorer.
Instead, what we, as activists, consumers, auto makers, mining companies and governments alike need to be pushing for are practical solutions that place human rights at the heart of the energy transition. As part of this, we should understand the problems in the DRC, not shun the country.
For example, our 2016 report documenting child labour listed recommendations for companies and the DRC government, based on international human right standards, and guidance from the OECD, and there has been undoubted progress made since then.
By using the language of “blood cobalt”, and deliberately echoing the work of Morel and others, some of today’s campaigners risk causing more harm than good.