Natural Resource Extraction: Cobalt Mining

Elazia – Year 11 Student

Editor’s Note: This thought-provoking essay on the topic of natural resources, specifically cobalt, the need to conserve them and the deplorable conditions in which young cobalt miners work is a pertinent matter in modern society. Elazia Y11 writes with detail and care, imploring the reader in her conclusion to think about their usage of the Earth’s raw materials. Mei – Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

[Featured image: Wolframite and Casserite mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.]

Like most, Dorsen an eight year old boy, spends 12 hours of his day at the mines; he has little to no time to rest and recover from injuries and has no time at all to go to school – as he should. He arrives wearing shorts and a short sleeved top, neither of which will be able to provide him with the slightest amount of protection. Grazing the thin uppermost layer of soil with his bare hands, he creates tunnels which he and his other workers will clamber into risking a gash to the head in the event of an overhanging rock collapsing. If he makes it safely to the mine floor Dorsen gathers up soil into a worn sac which, when full, can only be carried on his back. Above ground this earth is searched for cobalt. By infants. Infants as young as four. They too have no gloves, masks or protective equipment and so as a result of constant exposure to harmful substance are likely to have respiratory complications in the near future.

The overseers turn a blind eye to their suffering; only giving them attention when their mistakes prompt a beating. Mining companies choose to remain silent despite often being aware of the inhumane work conditions. Transnational Corporations (TNCs) buy from these companies who capitalise on the hardship of others. Finally we consumers buy the products of injustice to, in some cases, satisfy a short-lived desire.

Natural resources, like the cobalt mentioned earlier, have supported the development of all societies and are regularly used in our day to day lives. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from where the anecdote was taken from, can be used as an example of how heavily natural resources are relied upon and how versatile their uses can be. The DRC produces the largest quantity (60%) of cobalt across the planet with the remaining 40% produced by countries which include: Russia, Australia and South Africa. Cobalt, alongside many other minerals and components, comprise the key materials needed to make the lithium batteries found in mobile phones, toys, calculators, electric cars and many other devices. Technology like this is being increasingly relied upon, especially in the manufacturing of electric cars as we aim to reduce levels of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. It is not only rare minerals like cobalt that we are so dependent on, but the huge variety of other natural resources. We should be equally as responsible and concerned for every resource that we have been granted to ensure that through our various activities we are not harming the environment and fellow humans. How these resources are managed will become significantly more important in the next few decades as the world’s population is expected to rise from 7.8 to 9.8 billion in 2050 according to the UN in 2017. This exponential growth means that demand for natural resources would exceed the finite amount of materials that the Earth can supply. This pressure put on to natural resources will, as a result, increase competition among us and so will inevitably leave more people without them, creating more conflict and tension.

Unfortunately, there are several other issues surrounding natural resources including the unethical manner, as described in the anecdote, in which they are sourced. Often the poor of lower income countries put their own safety at risk to obtain these valuable minerals only to be paid next to nothing as few employment laws, which would protect workers, are enforced. This allows for workers to be exploited by mining companies, who capitalise on the fact that for most little will be done to provide them with a better work conditions or an alternative source of income. Mine extraction is not only harmful to people but also the environment as huge masses of earth are uplifted in the process, disturbing the local ecology. Trees and vegetation are removed from mining areas making the soil more susceptible to erosion if there is ever any heavy rain or wind. Additionally, in the absence of vegetation there is loss of biodiversity, putting wildlife at risk of extinction, as organisms lose their natural habitats. Furthermore the chemicals, waste products and other not-useful substances (which are combined with the desired ones) contaminate soil and water supplies used by the people in the surrounding areas. The impacts of mining, if done on a large scale, not only effect the local environment and it inhabitants but also contributes to global warming by removing the plants that act as carbon sinks.

Consumers may sometimes feel detached from the goings on in other countries as they are not directly affected by the problems associated with natural resources; however, TNCs rely on consumers buying their products and therefore the consumers’ demand drives the need for TNCs to continue to exploit natural resources. It is vital that natural resources are used sparingly, and seeing as most of the non-essential items manufactured by these TNCs tend to overuse or misuse supplies, consumers should try to minimise the amount they purchase.

However, I acknowledge that this will become increasingly difficult because, as stated earlier, we have become more reliant on technology because we have to cope with pressures put upon us, through advertisements or envy of celebrities’ extravagant lifestyles, to indulge in unnecessary expenditures. Maybe we should consider holding off from buying a new device if an old one still works or even purchasing second hand to stop encouraging the over-production of phones, computers, tablets, smartwatches and too many more… This level of concern applies not only to rare minerals, but should be extended to all natural resources, the environment and human beings and so, in a time where some of us are recognising that our actions have huge impacts on the environment, I hope that we have as much care for the consequences of our actions on the people who we seem to neglect.



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