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Green New Deals in the global North, such as those unveiled by the US and the EU in 2019, hope to reinvigorate stagnating capitalist economies by catalysing massive growth in the manufacturing and export of renewable energy and other green technologies, creating millions of high-skilled and well-remunerated jobs in the process. Max Ajl has labelled these low-carbon capitalist visions as belonging to an historical form of capitalism that has only survived through its ability to “hunt and feed on the periphery”. In other words, as an imperialist project dependent upon the transfer of value from South to North, producing uneven development and seeking to maintain Southern subordination within the global capitalist economy.

Green imperialism in the Congo

There are few other places, perhaps, where green imperialist dynamics are more visible than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Home to a range of critical low-carbon metals and minerals, including lithium, copper, and cobalt (with the country currently responsible for around two-thirds of global cobalt supply), the Congo also hosts an estimated $1 billion off-grid solar market and is home to 13 percent of global hydropower potential.

In the opening decades of the 21st century, hegemonic powers – most notably the US and the EU, with the support of the IMF, the World Bank, and Northern donors – successfully dismantled Congolese sovereign ownership and control over its natural resource wealth (not only low-carbon metals, but also water and sunlight) through the post-war liberalisation of the country’s mining and energy sectors. This, in turn, has established open access to the Congolese economy for the profitable extraction of low-cost, low-carbon metals and the entry of profit-seeking renewable energy finance and technology. Both processes serve to advance the imperialist economic agendas detailed in the wide array of Green New Deals coming out of the global North in recent years.

While China was less directly involved in the Congo’s post-war liberalisation (or at the least, if it was more directly involved, this has been less well documented to date), it has nonetheless been a major beneficiary of the process. In 2021, four of the six transnational mining corporations holding majority ownership of the Congo’s major cobalt projects, together accounting for 90 percent of total cobalt production in the country that year, were Chinese.

The US appears to have fallen asleep at the wheel here – with US mining corporate Freeport-McMoRan for example holding majority ownership of Tenke Fungurume up until 2016 – and is today heavily preoccupied with and concerned by China’s dominant position in the control of Congolese cobalt production. In July 2023, a press release accompanying a new bill towards the creation of a US national strategy to secure supply chains involving critical minerals from the Congo noted:

Currently, China operates 15 of the 19 cobalt producing mines in the DRC, which has created dominance for the Chinese Communist Party over global critical mineral supply chains which directly harms US strategic interests. As a result of this supply chain reality … it is imperative that the United States increases its engagement in the country [emphasis added].

The US is not alone in this concern, with most other countries and regional economic blocs in the global North busily implementing recently published critical minerals strategies designed to secure their access to Congolese and other metals and minerals deemed crucial for national security and intended transitions to low-carbon capitalism. Just last week, Toronto-based Electra Battery Materials signed an agreement with Eurasian Resources Group to buy 3,000 tons of Congolese cobalt hydroxide annually to feed a new refinery in Canada.

In contrast to China’s current hold on cobalt production, Northern firms and finance dominate the renewable energy space (Table 2), or what Lucy Baker has coined the continent’s “new frontiers of electricity capital”. Supplemented in many instances by development finance institutions, such as the UK government’s British International Investment, and taking place within a neo-colonial civilising mission to ‘light a dark continent’, there should be no mistaking the reality that first and foremost these are investments seeking profitable returns.

In solar, alongside generating profit through energy provision, new avenues have been opened through the deployment of a mobile phone ‘pay-as-you-go’ (PAYGO) system. PAYGO enables the purchase of solar home systems through a range of flexible, digital payment methods and allows solar firms to push other products such as televisions and fridges onto consumers (as practiced currently by the British firm Bboxx in the Congo, among others). Through this development, solar energy has been transformed into an asset stream for finance capital, becoming part of the financial technology industry that has served in the realm of mobile money on the continent to greatly enrich fin-tech firms and shareholders.

Mining-led national development?

Over the last several years, Congolese state officials have undertaken efforts to resist imperial encroachment and reassert a greater degree of sovereign ownership and control over the country’s resource wealth. This included, during the Kabila administration, the adoption of a new Mining Code in 2018. The new code raised tax and royalty rates and increased state ownership in licensed mining firms from five percent to 10 percent, changes that were all bitterly resisted right up until the final hour by the foreign mining corporates.

The following year, in November 2019, and now under the Presidency of Felix Tshisekedi, the Congolese government established the state-owned Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC), which represented in part an attempt to wrest control over the processing and export of artisanal and small-scale cobalt production – which accounts for around five to 15 percent of total cobalt production in the Congo – from a range of foreign-owned refineries. Most recently, beginning in 2021, the Tshisekedi administration has been developing plans to move up the estimated $8.8 trillion electric vehicle battery value chain from mineral exploitation to transformation and eventually to the domestic manufacture and export of batteries.

Yet in all of this, there has been no clear indication of shifting the country’s national development strategy away from the belief, most clearly expressed in the Congo’s 2017-2021 strategic plan for the mining sector, that mining industrialisation is “capable of realising the government’s vision to make the Congo an emerging country by 2030 and a global power by 2060”. The Tshisekedi administration appears as committed to this vision as the Kabila administration that preceded it. From this, it appears the increased demand for the Congo’s cobalt, copper and lithium to help facilitate low-carbon capitalist transitions elsewhere is making the country materially more reliant on these same exports, further constraining the space for a shift in national development strategy.

There is little evidence, however, from post-independence attempts at mining-led industrialisation to create much cause for optimism as to its emancipatory potential as a national development strategy in the Congo, and even less from the last two decades of pursuing this strategy in the context of a 21st century foreign corporate-owned mining landscape. Mining industrialisation since the turn of the century, while delivering high rates of GDP growth, has failed to translate into greater household income, poverty reduction, the emergence of domestic industry, or significantly improved wages and conditions for most workers.

In 2019, at the end of seven decades of efforts to diversify and structurally transform the productive base of the Congolese economy through mining-led industrialisation, 93 percent of total national exports derived from just three metal commodities: copper (57 percent), cobalt (28 percent), and gold (eight percent). While domestic forms of ownership and control should help staunch the overseas syphoning of value associated with foreign investment, the structural constraints of enclavity, price volatility, and low labour absorption greatly restrict the ability of mining industrialisation to stimulate broader based processes of liberatory economic transformation in the Congo, irrespective of ownership and management structures.

The political response to green imperialism in the Congo, then, appears to be reproducing a model of mining-led national development that historically has delivered little by way of material improvements for most Congolese, undermining the prospects of future prosperity in the country. Albeit this time around with the possibility of expanded access for some to renewable forms of energy as a foreign-owned privatised commodity, and all the limitations and contradictions this new model of energy delivery entails.

This article was first published by ROAPE.