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The genocide of the Congolese: a cautionary call against ‘green growth’

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By Mavra Bari

· 9 min read

“Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected. The cost of labor has been nullified through the degradation of Africans at the bottom of an economic chain that purports to exonerate all participants of accountability through a shrewd scheme of obfuscation adorned with hypocritical proclamations about the preservation of human rights. It is a system of absolute exploitation for absolute profit. Cobalt mining is the latest in a long history of “enormous and atrocious” lies that have tormented the people of the Congo.”

― Siddharth Kara, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives [1]

What connection do our smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles have with the Congo? 

The current way these technologies are manufactured would not be possible without cobalt, a mineral found in every lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

With every whoosh of an email, every push notification of a smartphone, every propel of a jet engine, and every mile of an electric drive – the modern-day slavery of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is being accelerated.

As of October 2023, 6.9 million Congolese people have been displaced due to violence and rebel attacks. Over 400 households have seen forced evictions driven by cobalt mining.

According to Amnesty International, industrial mining of cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries is leading to grievous human rights abuses, including sexual assault, child labour, deaths and injuries due to hazardous working conditions, increase in mortality, arson, and beatings. Activists and journalists aren’t mincing words when they call it a Genocide.

In 1948, the United Nations Genocide Convention defined genocide as any of five "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." 

Suppose historical and current genocides are to be analyzed. In that case, the mass ethnic, national, racial, and religious culling of a people is usually bolstered by geopolitical and economic vested interests, racism, and fascism. Marxist critiques of capitalism clearly tie genocide to capitalism, as “violence is inherent in the internal logic of capital and, therefore, it is a permanent feature of the capitalist system”[2]. Garry Leech argues that the structural violence inherent in the capitalist system “results in death on a genocidal scale, thereby constituting a class-based structural genocide that targets the poor, particularly in the global south.”

While the world saw the last dregs of colonialism between 1940-1960, the global south is still the victim of colonial control through capitalism. The subjugation of the Congolese in the wake of green capitalism’s gold rush is proof of that.

The dark side of green growth

While the genocide of the Congolese is an unfathomable atrocity, the even more unimaginable reality is that what is happening in the DRC will surely not stay in the DRC. According to the UN Global Resource Outlook Presentation made to EU ministers, the global extraction of raw materials is expected to increase by 60% by 2060. A demand-driven significantly and almost exclusively by the unquenchable thirst of ‘developed’ nations for Green Growth and techno-solutions [3].

Such forecasting not only spells disaster for the decolonization of the DRC but serves as a bone-chilling warning to the rest of the world, especially the Global South, as extraction countries may be vulnerable to extraction colonization. In contrast, already rich countries profit from a “clean” energy transition. Throwing an already out-of-whack global and geopolitical ecosystem further off-kilter.

According to the report, the extraction of natural materials is already responsible for 60% of global heating impacts, including land use change, 40% of air pollution impact, and more than 90% of global water stress and land-related biodiversity loss. As electric vehicles use almost ten times more Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) than combustion cars, to reach net zero transport targets by 2050, the EU would require increasing CRM extraction six times over in a mere 15 years. The ecological instability this would proffer is too tenuous to predict due to cascading climate impacts, and the humanitarian implications are too dire to begin to estimate if the DRC is any indication.

A silver flicker in this cloud of gloom?

Policymakers and governments in the EU are becoming aware of this dilemma. Janez Potočnik, a former European commissioner and a co-chair of the UN panel that produced the analysis, told The Guardian, “Decarbonisation without decoupling economic growth and wellbeing from resource use and environmental impacts is not a convincing answer, and the currently prevailing focus on cleaning the supply side needs to be complemented with demand-side measures.” 

The rush for CRMs: “It’s not our technology that’s the problem. It’s growth.”

What Potočnik is effectively gesturing towards is Degrowth, an ideological and actionable theory and plan that usually governments and companies are weary of even acknowledging, owed to its decoupling from capitalism and the relentless pursuit of growth at all costs. Proponents of Degrowth posit it as a revolutionary solution to the climate crisis and the only mass systems change on every conceivable level, from the individual to the communal to the governmental to the corporate and, at the heart of it all, the ecological [4].

Degrowth calls for abolishing measuring societies by the Gross National Product (GDP) and challenges economic growth as the sole social objective of a thriving planet. Human well-being in cohabitation, harmony with nature, and truly sustainable living are the hallmarks of what is proposed. 

Jason Hickel is one of the seminal figures in Degrowth. In his book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, he critiques the high reliance on decarbonization to tackle the complex problem of the climate crisis. “In a growth-oriented economy, efficiency improvements that could help us reduce our impact are harnessed instead to advance the objectives of growth – to pull ever-larger swathes of nature into circuits of extraction and production. It’s not our technology that’s the problem. It’s growth.” 

He posits a thought experiment of sorts that echoes the findings of the UN report and the genocide of the Congolese: 

“Once we have 100% clean energy, what are we going to do with it?...we’ll keep doing exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: we’ll use it to power continued extraction and production at an ever-increasing rate, placing ever-increasing pressure on the living world, because that’s what capitalism requires. Clean energy might help with emissions, but it does nothing to reverse deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion, and mass extinction. A growth-obsessed economy powered by clean energy will still tip us into an ecological disaster.”

Cracks in the Global Green Deal are showing as high-income countries cannot make good on the Global Green Deal by 2030 to keep temperatures under 1.5c or 2 degrees of heating, if they continue to pursue growth at the same rate. The destabilization brought on by the extraction needed for endless growth is even having negative consequences for indigenous peoples and ecosystems in countries, effectively leading to the clean energy transition. In 2019, the Norwegian Government approved the construction of a controversial copper mine in Kvalsund, Finnmark, more than 400km above the Arctic Circle, despite years of opposition from indigenous Sami herders and fishermen [5]. Indigenous Saami activist Beaska Niillas told the Pulitzer Center, “We have been here since the last ice age, and now we are treated like something that doesn't belong here from those intruders” [6].

One has to ask if indigenous peoples in developed countries in the Global North are facing this plight, what chance do marginalized people in the Global South have? 

The prisoner’s dilemma for CRM cooperation

Michal Čepelka, an expert focusing on CRMs and European CRM policy Association for International Affairs, believes that the goldrush for CRMs can potentially prove to be a turning point for the world and diplomatic relations if there is holistic inclusion of experts, politicians, community leaders, and policymakers. 

He likens this opportunity to the ‘Prisoner's Dilemma,’ a game theory thought experiment involving two rational agents, each of whom can cooperate for mutual benefit or betray their partner for individual reward. 

While historically and currently, it seems that most powerful countries tend to capitalize on the latter strategy, Čepelka is optimistic that the successful case studies put forth by some countries can help other Global South countries gain more autonomy and safety in the CRM market. 

For instance, Čepelka believes the National Lithium Strategy, launched by Chile in April 2023, offers various opportunities for the Chilean economy to vitalize its economy through developing the domestic lithium industry. The Strategy is intended to be a public-private collaboration, with the State supplying the long-term vision and regulations and private companies contributing capital, technology, and market networks [7]. 

The State will retain a majority stake in projects deemed strategic for the country, and the emphasis will be on adopting new lithium extraction technologies that minimize environmental impact. The strategy also aims to create a network of protected salt flats, with a target of protecting 30% of these areas by 2030. Most notably, it aims to have local communities actively participate in and involve themselves in all stages of lithium development in Chile, which will hopefully buffer forced evictions and the exploitation of marginalized groups. 

However, not all countries have the negotiating power as Chile does.

“Stronger international cooperation between CRM-producing countries is needed. Countries of the Global South, often without robust administrations, must coordinate their steps to gain negotiating power. Suppose the national policies focused on decarbonization persist. In that case, CRM mining will have to grow several fold in the future decade, and the producing countries should be prepared for the increased pressure it will create,” Čepelka told Illuminem.

Systemic strengthening is needed for Global South countries to have a chance to, if not be clear winners, then not be exploited losers of the CRM gold rush. The keys to limiting the negative fallout are supporting the local communities' strong involvement, minimization of corruption, and improved rule of law.

The history of colonization, war, and oppression sowed the seeds for mass exploitation of the cobalt mining in the DRC. When the rule of law and economy are weak, multiple powerful geopolitical and economic interests can swoop in. The DRC, while unique in its unprecedented exploitation in the name of ‘green growth,’ will not be the last but rather a first in many.

We must start asking ourselves what the true cost is—the human cost of green growth. Hickel deems growth “a structural imperative—an iron law.” Still, in the current polycrisis the world is going through, it is becoming clear that if the iron law of nature and humanity is not heeded, then no growth can save us, green or otherwise.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Footnotes and references

[1] How the Rush for Congo’s Cobalt is Killing Thousands (

[2] Garry Leech, Capitalism: A Structural Genocide. London and New York: Zed Books, 2012. Pp. 186.

[3] Extraction of raw materials to rise by 60% by 2060, says UN report | Mining | The Guardian

[4] Degrowth can work — here’s how science can help (

[5] Not So Green, Not So Clean: Are Green Technologies Silencing Local Communities? | Heinrich Böll Stiftung (

[6] Green-conscious Norway Will Dig a New Copper Mine in the Arctic | Pulitzer Center

[7] National Lithium Strategy – Policies - IEA 


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About the author

Mavra Bari is a journalist, writer, communications specialist and sociologist with a keen eye on the global politics surrounding climate change and the intersectionality of resource equity. She holds a Master from the University of Amsterdam in Sociology, focusing research on urban narratives and geography, urban marketing, tourism, sustainability and right to do the city. Mavra has worked with several international organizations and projects with UNIDO, US State Department, USAID, Heinrich Boell Stiftung, University of Amsterdam, Snow Leopard Foundation, and Butterfly Works, and has written extensively for Deutsche Welle.

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