In the December 7, 2023, issue of The Review, Nicolas Niarchos grapples with the conclusions of Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red, an urgent but sensational account of cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “Having seen what [Kara] describes, I can attest to just how shocking the conditions in some mines are—and even more so considering that the minerals will end up in the devices that are so much a part of our daily lives.” But with few other ways for many Congolese to earn income, what can be done? “Anyone who attempts to improve conditions and wages at artisanal mines must face the fact that workers can’t afford to lose what little they have.”
Niarchos is a freelance investigative reporter who has written for The Guardian and The New Yorker,among other outlets, most often reporting from Europe and Africa on subjects ranging from the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean to the Russian occupation of Bucha, Ukraine. He is currently working on a book about the global cobalt industry. We e-mailed this week about the transition to electric vehicles and what he read during his time in detention in the DRC.
Willa Glickman: What brought you to international reporting, and to reporting in the DRC in particular?
Nicolas Niarchos: I moved around a lot as a child. I grew up in the United Kingdom, the United States, and a little bit in France. My dad is Greek, my mom is Irish and English. I grew up thinking about borders and boundaries, and my first jobs and internships were at newspapers in the UK.
While interning at the Press Association in London, I was lucky enough to meet some of the survivors of the Mau Mau massacres and mass internments during the period of Kenyan decolonization from British rule. I was very young, and my editors had teamed me up with an older journalist to write an article for the wire about a lawsuit the Mau Mau were bringing against the UK government. Some of the men had been castrated by British troops and the women had been raped. They had seen their friends slaughtered in what I had been taught at school was a peaceful transition to self-rule. The British government at the time argued that the Kenyan government had “inherited” responsibility for those crimes. It was a story that I had zero knowledge of, and I was embarrassed that I had never heard of what seemed like a significant and brutal crime.
The Mau Mau ended up winning an apology and they were paid £19.9 million in compensation. I learned from this experience that there were often hugely important stories from around the world that were unknown in the UK and the US, that many such stories were in Africa, and that for justice to take its course people need to be educated about hidden crimes.
In 2015, while I was a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I was visiting family in Greece when the European refugee crisis began. I was soon on a flight to Lesbos to witness the sea of humanity arriving on the island, fleeing swathes of Iraq and Syria that had been captured by ISIS. I began covering refugee crises where I could, using my vacation days to report in Djibouti and the Western Sahara. I guess my desire to work in Africa really began there.
When I left fact-checking in 2018, I was speaking to a friend who used to work for a mining company. We are both admirers of Patrick Radden Keefe’s work, and especially a New Yorker piece he wrote about the Simandou iron ore mine in Guinea. “You know what’s much worse?” he said at the time. “Look at what’s happening in the DRC.”
Initially, I wanted to go to the DRC to report on the Dan Gertler story. Gertler was an Israeli businessman who had been sanctioned by the US government for his mine deals with Joseph Kabila, the former DRC president. I quickly realized, upon visiting Katanga, that there was a much bigger story, one about the technologies for the transition to green energy. I began chatting with artisanal miners, many of whom toiled in horrendous conditions for less than a dollar a day. The cobalt they produced was going into our phone and electric vehicle batteries. How could we, I asked myself, be basing the future on such a dysfunctional and tragic practice? And how could such conditions be improved so that everyone could prosper from the transition to a low-carbon future?
I have since visited mines in Indonesia and the US and seen other conditions—some good and some bad—that I believe are important to highlight as we hurtle into a battery-powered future. The questions I began asking in Congo have only grown more urgent with the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
You were detained while reporting in the DRC last year. What was that experience like? Have you had to adapt your reporting methods while you are working on your current book?
The experience of being detained and disappeared is soul-destroying. Enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity that harms both disappeared people and their families. I felt terrible every day for my family and the families of the people who were seized with me, especially that of the other journalist I was working with, my friend Jeef Kazadi. They had no idea where we were for days and were sick with fear.
The conditions in Congolese detention were bad. There was very little food (I was only properly fed once in six days—luckily, I had some sardines and cereal in my bag), and our personal effects were gradually stolen. I slowly befriended my guards, however, and after I explained to them why I was in the DRC, they became sympathetic and fairly cheerful. I was also lucky because they let me keep my books, even though they took my phone and all my pens. I ploughed through Martin Amis’s Inside Story, Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor, and Romain Gary’s Les Racines du ciel. You realize at such times what gifts reading and books are. When the US deputy consul visited with a list of lawyers, I thought I might be in for an endless court case, and steeled myself for a long time in jail. He asked what I needed, and I told him, “Food, and after a certain time, more books.”
The Congolese government has been on a bit of a tear recently, detaining and deporting journalists ahead of the election in December. It’s important to remember that other journalists, including the Congolese reporter Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala, are still in prison for simply doing their jobs. Some have suffered worse fates than me, like torture.
In general, the whole story has made me more cautious while reporting, as it seems that one of my sources was involved in a government plot to entrap me. My laptop and phones were seized by the Congolese authorities. They have still not been returned, so all the interviews, photos, reporting, and so on that I had saved on them are lost. I’ve had to go back to sources and reinterview people; now I work on Congo from the outside, as I am banned from going back. Luckily, trusted people give me regular reports on life there.
How important was the cobalt industry in the DRC prior to the surge in production for batteries, and what were the labor conditions like then?
Cobalt is a byproduct of copper mining; people have mined copper in the region since at least the fourth century AD. The land is believed to have been ruled by smith-kings, who handed down the secrets of metal smelting from generation to generation.* Congo has profited off copper since the early twentieth century, when the Belgians founded the Union Minière du Haut Katanga to exploit their metal riches. After decolonization, Mobutu and his ministers used the mines as their personal “vache laitière,” or milking cow, and bled the mines dry. During the cold war, cobalt rose to prominence as a metal for the defense industry: it was used for alloys in aircraft engines and ships, as well as in the infamous “cobalt bomb,” a particularly nasty form of atomic weapon. During and after the Shaba wars in the 1970s, the Soviets stockpiled cobalt, which made prices shoot up. For a brief period the metal was so valuable that it was being shipped out of the country by airplane.
Artisanal mining as we know it today—the type of small-scale mining where there are the most labor abuses—was really born in the late period of Mobutu’s kleptocracy, in the 1990s, when the state no longer had any money to pay mine workers. The message was passed down to “débrouillez vous,” which basically means, do whatever you can to make ends meet. People started burrowing into the ground to find their fortunes. This was sadly exacerbated by the years of anarchy during the two Congo wars of the late 1990s and 2000s.
Is there a way that formalizing artisanal mines, which, as you write, can sometimes improve workplace safety, can also avoid the pitfalls you enumerate, like entrenched corruption and reduced prices?
That’s the billion-dollar question. I recently testified in front of Congress on this issue. I don’t believe boycotts are the answer, nor are schemes like ITSCI, the tin, tantalum, and tungsten formalization framework, which writers like Christoph Vogel and James H. Smith have shown has led to more corruption and violence in the eastern part of Congo.
I think formalization has to be coupled with serious engagement with questions of democracy and economic growth in the DRC. Only with the real rule of law and a more diverse economy, one that does not solely rely on mineral extraction, can the people of Congo really begin making decisions about work and labor that will allow them to best apply their skills and creative genius.
You mention that technology is advancing so that some batteries do not require cobalt, which is a relatively expensive mineral. Does this foretell disaster for the cobalt industry in the DRC, or will there always be some need for it?
I think there will always be some need for cobalt in batteries, at least over the medium term. Lots of solid-state battery chemistries will require some cobalt, and high-performance lithium-ion batteries still use cobalt, as do the batteries in mobile phones and laptops. What’s more, cobalt also has a lot of industrial uses, so I think there will always be some demand.
The point is rather that we are innovating away from cobalt because it is seen as an expensive metal whose production is fraught with human rights abuses. This doesn’t have to be so: there is nothing special about cobalt that dictates its extraction be done by children or that it must be mined in environmentally unfriendly ways. There are ways to safely dig up cobalt and pay the Congolese for it handsomely. With that revenue, they could construct a functioning state and solve some of the chronic issues affecting its population.
This will be your first book. How has the writing and publication process been?
The process has been tortuous, and fraught with unexpected difficulties. At the end of an article, even one as long as the one for the Review, I can always understand the shape of it. It is there, visible, structured in the mind’s eye. That is, I can get my hands around it. I feel like writing a book is completely different. It is like trying to hold an eel: it keeps slipping through your fingers.
Another thing about book writing is that at a certain point one just has to stop. It feels like a million more things can be said on a topic, especially one like this, which shifts on a daily basis as politics and technologies evolve. And you just have to have the discipline to say it is finished. That said, I am still in editing, so the finish line is somewhere in the hazy distance.