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Lithium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: The fight for the raw material of the future


The largest lithium deposits in the world are located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Batteries are made from the raw material, which is indispensable for the fight against climate change. Now China wants to secure a share.

The ceiling tiles in the Manono community hall have rotted away.

There is a gaping crack in the concrete floor, it stretches across the room.

There is no electricity, the organizers have set up a generator outside, large loudspeakers and microphones are connected inside.

But most of the participants in the event don't need them, they voice their concerns loudly.

The faded »Grande Salle« of Manono in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a two-day drive from the nearest major city, is about world politics.

It's about who gets the mineral of the future on which they all live here: »The Chinese« or »the ones from the West«?

However, according to geologists, under Manono's soil lies what is possibly the largest lithium deposit in the world.


In the old documents of the former Belgian mine operators there is still a geological study, it dates from 1952. There is a half-sentence of »spodumène«, the lithium-bearing mineral.

It was a thorn in the side of the miners of that time, a waste product.

Today it is one of the most sought-after commodities in the world, and experts believe that demand will far exceed supply in the future.

Batteries are operated with lithium, also for electric cars, without lithium the energy transition will hardly be possible.

The lithium price has literally exploded in the past two years.

"Manono can play a significant role in meeting global lithium needs," said Nigel Ferguson, CEO of Australian mining company AVZ Minerals.

Some even say that whoever controls Manono could ultimately influence the world market price.

The inhabitants of Manono could live in wealth, people could splash around in the old swimming pool again, the "Grande Salle" could deserve the name "Grande" again.

But because that is not the case, they have now gathered in the community hall and let their anger run free.

"Why hasn't anything happened?" calls a local resident.

"We want work," says another indignantly.

Outside, in front of the community hall, large posters are hung up, on the left side it says "Manono yesterday", including pictures of dilapidated infrastructure and poor people.

On the right side it says "Manono tomorrow", two-lane roads, fresh water from the tap, happy residents.

Balthazar Tshiseke is seated at the front, facing the angry crowd.

He is wearing a white T-shirt and a white baseball cap, also printed here with »Manono yesterday, Manono tomorrow«.

Tshiseke heads the Dathcom joint venture, which has been supposed to be extracting lithium from the ground and turning it into money for months.

He gets his salary from AVZ Minerals, the Australians who hold the majority stake in Dathcom.

The congregation call him "Directeur".

Tshiseke patiently listens to the angry speeches, now and then he nods, then he slowly gets up.

It's not easy for him, his left leg has been paralyzed since childhood after contracting polio.

But his voice is firm and determined as he says, “The government just won't give us the mining license.

We're not allowed to dismantle anything yet."

Then he describes the major lines of conflict, it's very complicated, AVZ is hopelessly at odds with its joint venture partners.

On the one hand there is the Chinese businessman Cong Maohuai, just called Simon Cong in Congo.

He is considered to be politically well wired, both in Beijing and in Kinshasa.

Cong has his fingers in many dubious deals in the Central African country and is a highly controversial figure.

Cong's company Dathomir held the majority interest in the Manono concession until 2017, which soon turned out to be a gold mine.

Then along came AVZ's Australians, they bought into Cong's lithium deposit and secured control of the valuable business.

AVZ brought large equipment to Manono, they drilled a total of 42 kilometers of holes in the ground, and almost everywhere they encountered lithium-rich rock, sometimes up to 350 meters thick.

In 2019 they published the results of the soil samples.

"After that, all hell broke down on us," says AVZ boss Nigel Ferguson.

"Every single Chinese company in the lithium sector called us."

China is the biggest player in the lithium business.

The CATL company is the world market leader in battery production for electric cars and has just built a huge new factory in Thuringia, the first outside of China. The lithium from Manono is also urgently needed here.

It's no secret that Beijing would also like to control access to the raw material itself, and Manono now offers a great opportunity to do so.

The advances made by the Chinese were actually successful at first.

Lithium mining is expensive, so Australians need a lot of money.

To this end, they closed a deal with a subsidiary of the battery giant CATL in 2021: In return for 240 million US dollars in start-up financing, the Chinese company is to receive 24 percent of the shares in the lithium joint venture.

At the time, nobody was worried, they were talking about “our friends from China”.

The Australians have already signed three major supply contracts with Chinese companies, but not a tonne has yet been mined commercially from Manono.

"We would have liked to work with European or American companies, but unfortunately they shy away from investing in countries like the Congo," says AVZ boss Nigel Ferguson.

Europe and the USA are increasingly worried about losing influence in Africa.

The West does not want to become dependent on Chinese raw material extraction.

But investing in Congo is tricky, both economically and ethically.

So »the West« is left out.

In any case, the trouble soon started for AVZ.

Simon Cong, Dathomir's Chinese director, suddenly wanted some of his shares back.

He felt

pulled over the table.

And there was trouble on the other side too.

Because the Congolese mining company Cominière, which is controlled by the government, is also part of the joint venture.

This is to ensure that the Congo also gets something.

However, Cominière surprisingly negotiated a deal with the state-owned Chinese mining company Zijin, whose subsidiary sold 15 percent of Manono's shares.

The Australians felt ignored, contested the transaction, and the case is now before an international arbitral tribunal.

Suddenly AVZ is surrounded on three sides by players from China: Simon Cong from Dathomir, CATL and Zijin.

In a press release, the state-owned company Zijin is already maliciously speculating that AVZ will ultimately lose control of Manono.

Chinese media are now talking about a "power struggle between Chinese actors" as if the Australians were no longer playing a role.

»China's President Xi Jinping has issued the directive on critical raw materials: go out and get what you can get.

And that's exactly what we're experiencing right now," says AVZ boss Ferguson.

In the Grande Salle of Manono they have now arrived at big politics.

"It's about who's in charge here, the Westerners or the Chinese," exclaims one participant at the meeting.

"We don't want the Chinese!" Several others protested.

Balthazar Tshiseke nods with satisfaction, the event is a success for him, the residents of Manono gather behind the Australian company.

But it is only a small victory, because in the end the government in Kinshasa has the upper hand.

And Beijing is a welcome partner there, one that asks few questions and doesn't make any speeches about fighting corruption and sustainability.

Enlarge image

AVZ intends to extract 700,000 tons of spodumene per year, and test drilling is still underway

Photo: Arsene Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Steve Hodgson is a man of order.

When he turns in the white Land Cruiser on the damaged dirt roads of Manono, he blinks – even if there is no other vehicle far and wide.

He makes sure that AVZ cars are always parked backwards and that no one leaves the engine running.

Hodgson is a geologist, responsible for the mine on site, checking the latest test drilling and keeping an eye on the budget.

There is a loud rattling noise next to him, drill rods are being driven into the earth, a total of almost 600 meters deep.

Stone columns five centimeters thick are lined up on a tray, the results of the test drilling.

Hodgson wipes the dusty rock with a wet rag; it begins to shine.

With his index finger he taps a whitish spot, an embedded crystal.

"That's the lithium," explains the geologist, the pillar is permeated with it.

In order to obtain the coveted raw material, the ground has to be excavated over a large area, then the rock is ground up and so-called SC6 is finally extracted from it, the substance contains six percent pure lithium oxide, which is how it comes onto the world market.

AVZ wants to produce 700,000 tons per year, and from the beginning of 2021 the share price went through the roof.

But little is left of it: the company has suspended trading on the Australian stock exchange because of the conflict in the Congo.

According to media reports, numerous investors are planning a class action lawsuit against AVZ because the company did not provide information about the risks in good time.

Whether the mining license will ever be granted seems more than questionable.

The Congolese mining minister does not respond to a request from SPIEGEL.

The Australians only have perseverance slogans,

Steve Hodgson parks his pickup at the top of the camp where the mining company has set up camp, right next to the deep craters of the old tin mine.

Dozens of men in blue overalls are hammering, sawing and laying cables, they are building small one-story stone houses, dwellings for the miners.

"It should all be ready when we finally have the license," says Hodgson.

As if they needed something to hold on to, as if walls would do anything against political castling.

Then the geologist drives down to the village, over the old metal bridge, past the roadblock, where a group of men demand tolls from all passers-by, they call it "tolls."

There is no receipt.

Hodgson turns into the AVZ concession.

To the left and right, deep craters reach up to the dirt road, the Belgians have turned over square kilometers of the earth.

If the Australians have their way, the holes should soon get even deeper.

Hodgson points with his right hand to a group of men standing in the lunar landscape with shovels and sieves.

"There they are again," he murmurs, "we have to find a solution." They are the people of Manono who try their hand at artisanal mining, still digging in the old holes for tin, which can be bought for a few euros can be sold on the day.

The Australians have to get rid of them at some point, as heavy excavators and caterpillars are supposed to drive up here.

They had tried it recently, even hiring security forces to keep things in order.

But the people in Manono depend on the income from tin mining, and the mood threatened to change.

Now the mine operators want to allocate their own area to the residents.

A few weeks ago there was a demonstration in Manono organized by young people.

They called for a battery factory to be built in the city so that the raw material would not only be exported, but that the added value would take place locally.

In fact, the Congolese government has big plans, and has even set up a battery manufacturing center at a university.

But it's still about who controls the largest lithium deposit in the world.

Steve Hodgson is now standing in front of the police station, together with a lawyer.

His colleagues and he

have confiscated a large excavator that was illegally in the concession, allegedly to collect gravel for road construction.

It quickly turned out that the heavy vehicle was apparently on behalf of a Chinese company.

A showdown, believe the AVZ people.

The driver was arrested directly;

a small victory, but some time later he is released again.

The Chinese always find a solution.

This contribution is part of the Global Society project

Expand areaWhat is the Global Society project?

Under the title »Global Society«, reporters from

Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe

report on injustices in a globalized world, socio-political challenges and sustainable development.

The reports, analyses, photo series, videos and podcasts appear in a separate section in the foreign section of SPIEGEL.

The project is long-term and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

A detailed FAQ with questions and answers about the project can be found here.

AreaWhat does the funding look like in concrete terms?open

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been supporting the project since 2019 for an initial period of three years with a total of around 2.3 million euros - around 760,000 euros per year.

In 2021, the project was extended by almost three and a half years until spring 2025 under the same conditions.

AreaIs the journalistic content independent of the foundation?open


The editorial content is created without the influence of the Gates Foundation.

AreaDo other media also have similar projects?open


Major European media outlets such as The Guardian and El País have set up similar sections on their news sites with Global Development and Planeta Futuro, respectively, with the support of the Gates Foundation.

Did SPIEGEL already have similar projects? open

In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has already implemented two projects with the European Journalism Center (EJC) and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: the "Expedition ÜberMorgen" on global sustainability goals and the journalistic refugee project "The New Arrivals", within the framework of which several award-winning multimedia reports on the topics of migration and flight have been created.

Expand areaWhere can I find all publications on the Global Society?

The pieces can be found at SPIEGEL on the Global Society topic page.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2023-02-05

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