Industrial mines ‘take brutal' measures to stop reporting on birth defects linked to smelters in DRC
The barrier that cuts through the town of Kolwezi looks like a border wall. But it isn’t. On one side is an industrial-scale cobalt smelter, on the other artisanal mines and the homes of the people who live here in southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Private security patrols the perimeter of the fence: the low-rumble of a hundred-million-dollar operation is ever present. And it’s an operation that cobalt mining companies want to keep hidden from the world’s view and away from public scrutiny.
The Cost of Cobalt, a new documentary on Al Jazeera English’s People and Power, is the first film to take an in-depth look at an issue of growing concern in the Katanga region of DRC. Increasing numbers of babies are being born with horrific birth defects, and according to research published in The Lancet medical journal, some of this could be linked to extraction and smelting practices which are polluting the environment and contaminating people working in the mines or living close to them.
The health consequences are dire and so it is hardly surprising that the multi-national mining companies involved stop at nothing to try to prevent journalists from reporting on the issues.
In January this year, the film crew for The Cost of Cobalt were on location in a residential area of town when shooting was abruptly stopped. A private security team working for a mine started accosting the crew, despite having all the relevant accreditation. The crew was not filming on private land and was away from the smelter. They had every right to be where they were and have the camera rolling.
But that didn’t matter. One crew member, a local Congolese lawyer, was detained by the security group and thrown into the back of a vehicle without explanation. He was first taken to the mine, and then to a military justice centre where he was held in a 3x3 cell with 12 other people. The guards encouraged the other inmates to beat him. He was detained for almost three days as a civilian in an army prison, a serious violation of human rights.
It could be a scene from a Hollywood screenplay, but sadly, it is the reality journalists and documentary filmmakers face when reporting on mining issues in eastern DRC.
Speaking at Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Q&A session following the release of the new film earlier this year, director Robert Flummerfelt recalled the encounter which he says is an illustration of the “brazen behaviour” of mining companies in the area.
“The mine did this to a crew member of an Al Jazeera documentary, it illustrates the brutal measures taken to prevent any scrutiny,” says Robert.
“We are talking about Congolese security forces, the army, being instrumentalised by private actors, it’s really ugly state capture.
“This is not an isolated incident, when you look at the history of mining in DRC, we see forced evictions carried out by armed forces, tremendous violence and human rights abuses,” Robert says.
It’s a sentiment The Cost of Cobalt’s executive producer, Fiona Lloyd-Davies who has been working in DRC since the early 2000s, agrees with.
Fiona approached several mining companies individually and the body that represents them in Katanga province. She also tried to speak to the Congolese government. She received not one response. “That’s indicative to the certain amount of arrogance, they feel that they don’t need to respond,” says Fiona.
Also speaking at the Pulitzer Center Q&A, Fiona told the audience: “They make it very, very difficult for journalists to report on this story, the industrial mines employ very aggressive tactics. It’s much easier to report on other stories.”
Both Fiona and Robert think it is one of the reasons the birth defects story has received virtually no first hand coverage compared to other narratives about the use of child labour in artisanal mines in the region. The filmmakers say the focus on the issue, while an important one, has provided a convenient distraction from other alarming practices.
Despite barriers to reporting, the voice of concerned scientists, doctors and clinicians in Katanga is growing louder. Studio 9 Films’ crew were able to gain their trust and build relationships with those directly affected by such health problems. They are passionate, welcome the chance to talk about the possible link between the mines and birth defects seen in children with mothers who live nearby or work at smelters and for the first time have been able to speak openly and freely on camera.
You can watch the full film, the Cost of Cobalt, on Al Jazeera here: https://www.aljazeera.com/program/people-power/2021/4/1/the-cost-of-cobalt
Studio 9 Films is now planning a feature documentary about cobalt mining, if you would like more information please contact us through www.studio9films.co.uk