Unheard voices across the lifecycle of digital technologies and low-carbon transitions

Lived experiences of cobalt miners in the DRC and e-waste workers in Ghana

We are living in a society that relies heavily on digital technology, and these technologies have become so engrained in our everyday lives that we rarely question where they come from, whose labour contributes to their existence and what happens after we dispose of it. Some technologies, such as electric vehicles, solar panels, and heat pumps, also rely on both degrees of digitization and many of the same metals, minerals, and components as digital technologies.

How many of us have thought about purchasing an electric vehicle, or installing solar panels on our home? Or, perhaps more commonly, how many of us have found ourselves automatically agreeing to an “upgrade” with our phone network provider after our smartphone stopped working shortly after the end of a two-year contract?  

A transition to a more sustainable economy will require joint efforts from corporations and governments to work towards a circular economy, to decrease the impact of products on our planet across their lifecycle, starting from what raw materials we use to how waste is handled. But how will this impact people working at different stages of the product’s lifecycle—especially the front end (mining and extractive industries) and back end (recycling and waste management)— in parts of the world with weak governance structures and lack of policy enforcement and accountability?

A set of two recent twin studies have looked at cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and toxic electronic waste  (e-waste) processing in Ghana. These two studies set out to humanise the challenges of both these sectors by revealing the lived experiences of cobalt miners and e-waste workers.

Cobalt miners and scrapyard workers in the DRC and Ghana, 2019

The photo on the left shows an artisanal cobalt mining team near Kolwezi, mining on the Kasulu concession in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Note the young age of most of the miners, the use of manual tools as well as the lack of any women present. The photo on the right shows a scrapyard worker at Agbogbloshie, near Accra, Ghana, using fire to melt down electronic and digital appliances so that copper can be extracted. Note the lack of any protective equipment as well as the thick black smoke.

Giving a voice to people whose experiences are rarely considered in decision-making processes put the impact of our addiction to digital technologies into stark light.

The Democratic Republic of Congo produces roughly 60% of the global supply of cobalt, which is used in our phones and computers, as well as other technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels. Despite having vast natural resources, 63% of Congolese citizens live below the national poverty line of less than $1 per day.

In the DRC, corporate firms and mining associations operate with perhaps as much power as government actors, with miners finding themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy of interests. Many of these miners work in conditions that harms their health and even endangers their life. In many cases they have no protective equipment or tools to work with, so they have to dig by hand. There are no trade unions to protect their interests or cooperatives that could fight for improved conditions.

The situation is similar with toxic e-waste workers in Ghana. Negative health impacts among scrapyard residents and workers, child labour and environmental pollution are ubiquitous.

Unheard voices can also help highlight the other side of the story. People trapped in poverty in areas with almost no opportunities for formal employment have lower expectations when it comes to working conditions. Cobalt mining in the DRG and work on the scrapyard in Agbogbloshie, Accra have provided a route out of poverty for the community. When you are offered two and a half times above the average income of informal economic workers in the country and you have a family to feed, you don’t think about the health impacts.

Many workers we spoke as part of our research showed pride in their work, which has become a key part of their cultural identity. One of our expert interviewees in Ghana explained

“We call it e-waste, but people on the ground do not call it that … Scrap dealers do not identify as waste managers, they instead see themselves as harvesting commodities as part of a lively value chain. They are community stewards”.

Discontinuing cobalt mining or e-waste processing in these countries without thinking about the people who will be impacted on the ground will have disastrous consequences. We don’t have to look too far to see, how, phasing out certain industries without thinking about providing alternative employment opportunities can destroy a community.  

A thoughtful response to a challenging situation is needed. Our research explores what policy makers can do at a global as well as national level to tackle the challenges arising. One thing is key: when thinking about a sustainable future, we need to remember the unheard voices, lives sacrificed at the altar of consumerism. Solutions need to consider their future and how we can shift away from harmful practices while also offering alternative pathways out of poverty in a way that preserves the community’s pride and identity.

Finally, you might ask, what we can do as consumers. We can remember that our phones and EVs don’t come from nowhere and don’t just go away. The “away” is a very real, living, breathing, suffering “place”). But also, it is a place with pride.

The research summarized here is published in the following two studies, both peer-reviewed academic journals, and both a part of the INNOPATHS project:

Sovacool, BK. “The precarious political economy of cobalt: Balancing prosperity, poverty, and brutality in artisanal and industrial mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Extractive Industries & Society 6(3) (July, 2019), pp. 915-939.  Available at https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1ZjZH_,52Irqxfa

Sovacool, BK. “Toxic transitions in the lifecycle externalities of a digital society: The complex afterlives of electronic waste in Ghana,” Resources Policy 64 (December, 2019), 101459, pp-1-21.  Available at https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1ZrGM14YFwvkMb

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