The Stream

Is our hunger for new technology dooming DR Congo?

On Thursday, February 17 at 19:30 GMT:
More than six billion smartphones are estimated to be in use worldwide, with their pocket-sized power reliant on rare earths and precious metals.

Most of us give little thought to the origin of the materials that drive our devices. But ‘Seven Grams‘, an app that recently featured in the New Frontier category at Sundance Film Festival, aims to change that.

The app blends journalism, augmented reality, and animation to show how global demand for ever-faster smartphones is harming people in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where minerals and metals essential for smartphones and other electronic devices are mined.

It’s thought that about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is produced in DR Congo, much of it in the south and east of the country. While multinational mining companies extract most of this heavy metal, a substantial amount is mined by artisans who endure dangerous working conditions. Child labour is commonplace, while women often help prepare freshly-mined material. Medical researchers have drawn a link between workers’ exposure to toxic trace elements and birth defects in children.

The dangers don’t end at the rock face. With DR Congo still holding an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, some illegal armed groups rely on revenue from illicit mining to fund their continued operations. Human rights groups have documented that those same groups have brutalised civilians.

As multinational companies continue to rely on rare minerals in manufacturing, families in DR Congo have recently sought to highlight the impact of mining upon them. In December 2019 Apple, Tesla, Dell, Microsoft and Google were listed as defendants in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 14 families who say their children were killed or injured while mining cobalt. All five companies denied responsibility. While the case was eventually dismissed in November 2021, lawyers for the families have filed a notice of appeal.

In this episode of The Stream, we’ll look at how ‘Seven Grams’ highlights the human toll of mineral mining in DR Congo that is driven by the global hunger for electronic devices.

In this episode of The Stream, we are joined by:
Karim Ben Khelifa, @kbenk
Director, ‘Seven Grams’

Sara Geenen
Associate Professor, University of Antwerp

Bossissi Nkuba, @BossissiNkuba
Professor, Catholic University of Bukavu