The hallmark of most underdeveloped countries has always been “the trap of natural resources”. In fact these countries are often very rich in raw materials, but this implies difficulties in their economic development. The market of raw materials is unstable and does not enable an improvement of life conditions in general, whereas it increases the inequalities within the country instead. This is the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In 2021, the DRC is the fifth poorest country in the world - according to its GDP pro capita -despite its wealth of natural resources: gold, diamonds, petrol, cobalt and coltan (columbite-tantalite). These latter could be defined as the "black gold" of electronics, since they are used for the production of batteries and more in general, are widely used by computer companies and high-tech industries worldwide.
However, the "new gold of digital era", does not mean richness, developement and better opportunities for Congolese people, but rather poverty, inequality and conflicts. The high demand and the high value of coltan and cobalt make it a risky business: these are often exchanged for weapons by paramilitary organizations and guerrillas, becoming frequently the cause for wars within the region, leading to uncertainty and poverty.
Unfortunately that's not all: among the workers extracting coltan and cobalt in the Congolese mines, we can fine thousands of children. Child labor is still a scourge, so much that according the "Child Labor: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward" - published by the International Labor Organization and UNICEF on the occasion of the Universal Children's Day (June 12th, ed) - in 2020 the number of children living in this situation was 160 millions. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen a dramatic increase in the number of exploited children involved in child-labor since 2012. The number of children involved in this matter is higher here than everywhere else. In 2020 the number amounted to 86.6 millions. As already mentioned, thousands of these are exploited in cobalt and coltan mines.
Extraction and labor are very cheap for traders, foreign companies and high-tech industries, but not for children: they are deprived of any rights, education and health. They work up to 12h a day in appalling condition and constantly exposed to noxious substances without any protection, forced to move heavy bulks, and to enter unsafe caves where the risk of accidents is pretty high. Moreover they use very obsolete tools and often work with bare hands in order for us to be able to buy the latest and newest smartphone.
Doctors without borders claim that there are several side effects due to the constant exposure to noxious substances: heart failure, vascular diseases, brain damage, skin rush, hematopoietic stem cells loss, digestive disorders, tumoral risks, genetic defects and lymphatic diseases. These need to be treated with medicines that the population cannot afford or that are not available in DRC.
Children and teens risk suffering irreparable physical and mental damage. Child labor undermines not only their health but also their education, the fulfillment of their rights, their opportunities and leads to a vicious cycle of poverty, exploitation and deprivation that has an impact on generations to come.
The Covid-19 Pandemic, – in DRC as well as in the rest of the world – risks undermining the process for the gradual elimination of child labor, threatening the economic and social conditions of families, already in serious difficulty, and of the country as a whole.
According to the latest studies published by the International Labor Organization, 8.9 millions of children will be forced into child-labour by the end of 2022, due to the pandemic and the growing poverty resulted from it.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo unfortunately it is likely that thousands more children will end up in the coltan and cobalt mines, for 1-2 euros a day. It is therefore necessary to continue to fight child labor in its entirety, as already underlined in Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), just as it is necessary to develop awareness of what certain luxury goods entail for thousands of children living in conditions of extreme vulnerability.
Moreover it is necessary to apply target policies since, to date, there are almost no alternatives to mining and often child labor in the coltan and cobalt mines represents the only chance for many families to survive. Important measures must therefore be implemented since there is no need to trade rights and opportunities - of children above all and Congolese communities in general - for economic survival.
Translated by Valeria Pasquali