Recent deals between US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and African heads of state promise eye-popping profits for US mining multinationals and fewer protections for African laborers “toiling in subhuman conditions” to drive the digital revolution.
The US Africa Leaders Summit held this December in Washington DC provided a platform for the Biden administration to advance its agenda across the African continent. With topics ranging from COVID-19 to climate change to “closing the digital divide,” to “strengthening democracy,” Washington’s agenda united around the belief that African collaboration with US multinational corporations would prove mutually beneficial, and advance long-term “progress.”
The weekend of discussions was conducted Davos-style, with heads of US industry seated directly beside African heads of state and members of the Biden administration. At the top of the corporate titans’ agenda was the relaxation of regulatory requirements, which they argued would make the continent more “inviting” for outside investment.
One set of regulations that the US would especially like to loosen are those relating to the mining sector. This includes miners’ rights, child labor laws, slavery laws, environmental regulations and mineral tariffs.
Deloitte, a US corporate giant and strategic partner of the World Economic Forum, published a paper in 2018, “The Future of Mining in Africa,” which spells out the agenda Washington is advancing across the continent.
The paper argued that facilitating the digital transformation known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution would require African nations to loosen mining regulations intended to protect human rights and the environment. The paper lamented that the mining sector “continues to experience scrutiny by regulators in Africa,” which supposedly “creates uncertainty, delayed investment in mining expansion, and stops the development of new mines.”
Deloitte went on to argue that Africa needs “to move away from enforcing [regulatory] compliance for compliance sake and move toward delivering value.” It was clearly implied that that “value” would be determined by corporate America, and not necessarily the African people.
The script put forward by Deloitte helped set the stage for the US Africa Leaders Summit this December. There, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented a memorandum of understanding to DRC Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula and Zambian Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo. The agreement, according to Blinken, “opened the door for US and like-minded investment” in the respective countries’ vast “green” mineral wealth, referring to massive deposits of nickel, cobalt, and copper.
“The DRC produces more than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest copper producer, second-largest cobalt producer in Africa,” Blinken said.
“Global demand for critical minerals is going to skyrocket over the next decades…Electric vehicles help reduce carbon emissions and they support the global response to the climate crisis,” the Secretary of State continued, draping the plundering of Africa’s wealth in friendly green-speak.
Siddhartha Kara, an academic and author of four widely-praised books exposing the business of human trafficking and slavery in Africa, has spent several years in rural Congo documenting the most hideous – and largely hidden – abuses of US multinational supply chains and mining operations.
Kara remarked to The Grayzone that the agreements hashed out at the US Africa Summit “will mean more demand for minerals used in EVs, leading to more exploitation, abuse, and misery for the women, children, and men who scrounge the world’s cobalt out of the dirt in the DR Congo.”
The US Africa Summit culminated with an event called “The Deal Room” in which leaders of industry announced and celebrated successful agreements with African nations. Among the corporate executives to appear inside the “Deal Room” was KoBold Metals’ Josh Goldman.
KoBold Metals is a new tech-mining company founded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson. The company relies on AI and advanced imaging systems to find and mine rare earth mineral deposits that other mining giants have missed.
“Our job at KoBold is to invent better ways to find the metals to electrify the world economy. Copper, cobalt, nickel and lithium. We are working to discover the deposits that will become the next generation of mines and produce the materials that we need to avoid catastrophic climate change,” Goldman said at the event.
How many rare earth minerals does this Gates, Bezos, Branson company aim to mine and own? All of them, in fact.
The KoBold website candidly states that the company aims to secure control over “all of the world’s reserves of [nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper.]”
In the “Deal Room,” KoBold’s Goldman announced a new mining project in Zambia:
“I’m here to announce the largest investment yet in our company’s history. An investment to own, develop and explore. Zambia is a place where the laws support investing and where the government supports our investment with actions that are transparent and fair and fast,” Goldman said.
According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030, U.S. multinational corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Tesla and Google will require 17 times more rare earth minerals to power western consumers’ smart devices and electric cars for the coming green revolution.
In 2021, The U.S. Department of Defense explained that Africa “has a plethora of strategic materials,” describing those resources as “critical to 21st century progress.”
And according to The New York Times, the latest line of electric vehicles “rely on a host of minerals and metals often not abundant in the oil-rich Middle East, which sustained the last energy era.” These minerals are in another historical target of rapacious colonialism: Africa.
In Siddhartha Kara’s view, the growing demand for “green batteries” is “driving a scramble to extract vital metals out of the ground as quickly as possible.” The mineral rush has left thousands of workers with no protections while “toiling in subhuman conditions for a few dollars a day to feed vital battery minerals up the chain to consumer-facing tech and EV companies worth trillions.”
Industry participants in the Davos, Switzerland-based World Economic Forum proudly embrace what they believe is a kinder, gentler economic model known as “stakeholder capitalism.” No longer will these corporate giants obey the will of shareholders at the expense of human rights and equity; instead, they are collectively moving forward toward a seemingly progressive vision that sees all of humanity as a “stakeholder,” and are working in its interest.
The mentality of stakeholder capitalism is clearly reflected in the tech and electric vehicle industry’s public relations campaign around their supposedly “sustainable” supply chains.
A 2019 class action lawsuit filed on behalf of injured Congolese miners shatters the industry’s rhetoric about ethical operations. The suit alleged that Alphabet (Google), Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla are “aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children… to mine cobalt.”
However, the complex nature of the tech industry’s raw material supply chains, which change hands dozens of times between a wide array of unofficial and official groups, has made it practically impossible to pinpoint the origin of cobalt minerals. It was this deliberately opaque process that enabled the tech giants to dodge the Congolese miners’ lawsuit.
Apple, for its part, has released an official 20 page document promising that the company’s supply chains have been certified “ethical” by a “third party supply chain investigator.”
Kara, the researcher of slavery in the African mining industry, dismissed claims like those by Apple as “little more than optics and marketing campaigns that rarely, if ever, touch the bottom of corporate supply chains. The assumption is — if we say we are ensuring dignity and sustainability all the way down our supply chains, people will believe us and business can carry on as usual.”
“The truth,” Kara explained, “is that there is a global subclass of humanity in appalling conditions at the bottom of our global economic order [in the mining sector].”
Today I'm across the road from Parliament covering a Supreme Court case for @M_Star_Online – British mining giant Vedanta is trying to dodge a law suit about it's pollution in Zambia, saying UK courts don't have jurisdiction pic.twitter.com/xeZSmbgzqw
— Phil Miller (@pmillerinfo) January 15, 2019
With the demand for materials for EV batteries set to increase by 87,000 percent according to a 2020 study by Sussex University, the mining industry will be compelled to continually exploit new areas of the developing world – and new populations – to keep pace.
And just as the US waged regime change wars and conducted long-term military occupations across the Middle East to secure control over the fossil fuel energy sources Western consumers demanded, similarly coercive tactics could supplement memoranda like the one the US signed at its recent summit with Zambia and DRC.