The Dilemma of Sustainable Development: The Case of Environmental Degradation in Congo

Currently in the world there are a lot of cobalt reserves, many located within Africa, however, there is one country that has the largest cobalt mines which is the DR Congo.

In the endeavor to achieve sustainable development to decrease environmental harm, many have turned towards the potential of utilizing renewable energy in order to lessen the use of fossil fuels alongside carbon emission. Efforts have been made by both countries and corporations alike, this could be seen in the case of the United States where electric vehicles are currently on the rise. The change could be linked back to the US government’s enacted policies on the imposition of emission limitations produced by vehicles. EVs’ capability in reducing carbon emissions is due to its power source as it is generated by lithium batteries. As it is made up of various minerals lithium batteries production poses a problem in itself because of the extraction process of such minerals. The process in itself entails mining through either the help of equipment or in the case of many developing countries direct contact by workers through using artisanal tools such as shovels. However, this gave health alongside environmental repercussions because of the released particles through the activity of mining which results in pollution to the surrounding area in both the water and air. Not to mention, cobalt in itself produces toxic dust causing long standing health problems towards the people that come into its direct contact which is the case for most workers in developing countries, therefore, the issue of cobalt mining becomes both an economic as well as ecological and social problem.

Currently in the world there are a lot of cobalt reserves, many located within the African region, however, there is one country that has the largest cobalt mines which is the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Congo amounts to half of the world’s cobalt reserves . In further analyzing the phenomenon I will employ the unequal exchange theory in accordance with Saes with the focus on the ecological aspect. The theory argues that developed and developing countries have differences in opportunities based on their capital accumulation in terms of economic relations, which produces the unequal relationship between developed and developing countries, especially, pertaining to  trade relations and also environmental exploitation on the aspect of raw materials extraction. Resulting in developing countries inability to value their natural resources higher while they also faced detrimental environmental issues due to the lack of budget and  capability in doing restorative works. The theory also highlights the long term effects of the inequality which are dependency towards developed countries and further harm towards the environment.

In the case of Congo, exploitation of the country’s cobalt reserves  to fulfill the demand of the world market has resulted in impoverished local population with many being subjected to inhumane working conditions and less than livable wages causing many Congolese to be impacted with major health problems and the lack of capability in accessing better medical facilities. Social situation is exacerbated with the forced displacement of many Congolese due to the ever growing expansion of multinational companies in seeking for more areas to be open for cobalt mines. In addition, the establishment of illegal mines has contributed to the worsening conditions faced by Congolese as they lack the safety measures to ensure workers safety and avoid work accidents, considering  in 2019 the illegal mine site owned by a foreign  MNC saw the death of estimated 43 Congolese due to a landslide. Congolese also faced the threat of starvation because of food shortages as a consequence of the conflict and environmental degradation that occurs in Congo. Pollution that was produced due to the mineral mining caused difficulty in growing agricultural commodities as it contaminated the ecosystem including soil that are used to grow agricultural products.

The situation is hard to remedy as Congo relies heavily on the revenue gained through foreign investment from MNCs and by extension the mining industries. According to the world bank report in 2008  the industry has significantly contributed to the growth of GDP.  The growth is evidentially further risen in 2022 with an estimated 8.9% growth mainly induced by the mining sector with 22.6%, hence, the continuance of the current mining situation in the country. Though there are attempts to restore the environment by the government of Congo with the TRI DRC Project it is not enough to rejuvenate the destroyed environment in Congo especially since the main issue has not been addressed or stopped because of its high contribution to Congo’s economy.

However, this leads to the problem of continued exploitation of Congo and its people with the complicity of the Congolese government in allowing the exploitation to occur in order to derive the highest benefit from it. Furthermore, Congo’s dependency on mining industries investment mostly from foreign corporations and MNCs makes it harder for enforcement against labor and environmental exploitation to be enacted due to the fear of investment being pulled out of their country. The continuance of dependency is in accordance with the Ecologically Unequal Exchange theory since the foreign investment and MNCs gave benefit towards economic growth but also damages the environment without being obliged to revitalize it.

Not to mention, though Congo GDP has grown over the course of the years, it is still a developing country that lacks the funds in order to fully fix the harm done towards their environment and the revenue gain by the Congolese government is not amounted to the earnings of the foreign corporations by selling the processed cobalt and other minerals extracted from Congo.Henceforth, in order to achieve environmentally friendly vehicles in the aim of sustainable development and net-zero emission promise it sacrifices developing countries like Congo perpetuated by long standing exploitation of both the Congolese people and the surrounding environment. Thus, the issue of environmental protection could not be separated by the issue of exploitation and economic dependency of developing countries alongside the degradation of their country’s ecosystem that they are currently experiencing.

Shofiyyah Aqiilah Siregar
Shofiyyah Aqiilah Siregar
I am an undergraduate student in the international relations department of Universitas Gadjah Mada with high interests on the issue of international security, technological development and environmental economy.