Lithium Bonanza China Battles West for Raw Material of the Future
For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The ceiling panels in the Manono community center are disintegrating. A crack runs through the cement floor, diagonally across the room. There is also no electricity, though event organizers have set up a generator outside for the large speakers and microphones. But most of the meeting participants don’t really need any technical assistance as they loudly share their points of view.
In the faded Grande Salle of Manono, a small town in the Democratic Republic of Congo located a two-day drive from the nearest big city, the focus is on global politics. The question is: Who should be allowed access to the minerals of the future located in the earth below their feet? "The Chinese," or "the people from the West?"
According to geologists, though, the earth beneath Manono contains what might be the largest lithium deposit in the world. Completely untouched. Among the old documents from the former Belgian mine operators, there is a geologic study from 1952. Almost as an aside, one sentence in the study mentions the presence of "spodumene," a mineral that contains lithium. It was a significant obstacle to the miners back then, basically waste that just got in the way. But today, it is one of the world's most sought-after raw materials. Experts believe that demand for it will vastly exceed supply before long.
Lithium is a vital ingredient in the batteries that power electric cars and so much more. Without lithium, a shift from fossil fuels would hardly be possible – and the price for lithium has exploded in the last two years. "Manono can play a significant role in the supply of the world's lithium demand," says Nigel Ferguson, CEO of the Australian mining company AVZ Minerals. Some have even said that control of Manono will translate to control over the global market price of lithium.
And that means that the residents of Manono could once again live in wealth, swimmers could once again splash around in the pool and the Grande Salle could once again live up to its name. But because that isn’t yet the case, they have gathered in the community center to vent their anger. "Why isn’t anything happening?” one resident demands. "We want work,” another says. Outside the community center, large posters have been put up, the left side of which reads "The Manono of Yesterday,” with images of dilapidated infrastructure and people living in poverty. The right side reads "The Manono of Tomorrow” and includes pictures of two-lane roads, clean water flowing from the tap and happy residents.
Balthazar Tshiseke is sitting up front facing the angry crowd. He is wearing a white T-shirt and a white baseball cap, also printed with the slogan "Manono Yesterday, Manono Tomorrow.” Tshiseke is head of the joint venture Dathcom, which should have begun extracting lithium and selling it several months ago. He is paid by AVZ Minerals, the Australians, who own a controlling share of Dathcom; the people gathered in the community center refer to him simply as "Directeur.” Tshiseke patiently listens to the frustrations of those gathered, nodding every now and then. Finally, he slowly stands up, which isn’t easy for him since his left leg has been paralyzed ever since suffering from polio as a child. His voice, though, is firm and decisive: "The government simply won’t issue a mining license to us. We aren’t allowed to begin operations yet.”
Balthazar Tshiseke (with the microphone) together with his colleague Steve Hodgson in the Manono community centerFoto: Arsene Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL
He then goes on to describe the outlines of the conflict, a rather complicated endeavor. AVZ is hopelessly at odds with its joint venture partners. One of those is the Chinese businessman Cong Maohuai, who everyone in DR Congo simply calls Simon Cong. He is thought to have excellent political connections, both in Beijing and in Kinshasa. Cong is also involved in numerous dubious deals in the Central African country and is an extremely controversial figure. Cong’s company Dathomir held a majority share of the Manono concession until 2017, an incredibly valuable holding, as would become clear. But then, the Australians from AVZ showed up and bought a controlling share of the concession from Cong.
Not long later, AVZ brought heavy equipment to Manono and drilled 42-kilometers of holes in the ground – and they found lithium-rich stone virtually everywhere they drilled, some of the layers up to 350 meters thick. In 2019, the company published the results of its test drilling. "All hell broke loose on us after that,” says AVZ CEO Nigel Ferguson. "Every single Chinese company in the lithium market called us.”
Many residents of Manono operate small, artisanal mines to extract tin.Foto: Arsene Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL
China is the biggest player in the lithium industry. The company CATL is the global leader in producing batteries for electric cars and just built a vast new factory in the German state of Thuringia, the first one outside of China. Here, too, the lithium from Manono is badly needed. It’s no secret that Beijing would also like to control access to the raw material, and Manono offers a prime opportunity to do so.
The Chinese advances were initially successful. Lithium mining is expensive and the Australians need a lot of money to exploit the deposits. For that purpose, they made a deal in 2021 with a subsidiary of the battery behemoth CATL: In exchange for U.S. $240 million in start-up cash, the Chinese company acquired a 24-percent share of the lithium joint venture. At the time, nobody was concerned, with everyone talking about "our friends from China.” The Australians have also signed three large supply contracts with Chinese companies, even if not a single ton of lithium has yet been commercially extracted from Manono.
"We are happy to work with European or American companies, but at present they are not inclined to invest in countries like Congo,” says Ferguson. Europe and the United States are increasingly concerned about losing influence in Africa and don't want to become dependent on Chinese-mined raw materials. But investments in Congo are delicate, from both an economic and ethical perspective – with the result that the West is largely out of the game.
AVZ, meanwhile, soon had its hands full. Simon Cong, the Chinese director of Dathomir, suddenly began demanding the return of some of his shares, convinced that he had been deceived. And there were other problems as well. Another member of the joint venture is the Congolese mining company Cominière, which is controlled by the government, a way of assuring that Congo gets its share of the riches. But Cominière caught AVZ by surprise when it negotiated a deal with the state-owned Chinese mining company Zijin, selling a Zijin subsidiary 15 percent of the Manono concession. It was now the turn of the Australians to feel duped, and AVZ challenged the deal, with the case now before an international court of arbitration.
For many locals, tin mining is their only source of income. They spend hours standing in the mud to filter tin out of the water, earning the equivalent of a few euros each day.
AVZ, in other words, suddenly finds itself surrounded by Chinese actors on three sides: Simon Cong of Dathomir, CATL and Zijin. In a press release, the state-owned mining company Zijin recently speculated maliciously that AVZ might ultimately lose control of Manono entirely. Chinese media outlets, meanwhile, are reporting on a "power struggle between Chinese players,” as though the Australians no longer play any role at all. "China’s President Xi Jinping issued the directive: Go out and get what you can with regards to critical minerals,” says AVZ CEO Ferguson. "And that's what we are seeing right now.”
Back in the Grand Salle of Manono, the topic has now turned to the most important political question. "It’s all about who has control, the ones from the West or the Chinese,” calls out one meeting participant. "We don’t want the Chinese!” say several others. Balthazar Tshiseke nods contentedly, with the meeting apparently turning in his favor as Manono residents unite behind the Australian company. It is, however, just a minor victory, because ultimately the government in Kinshasa has a much greater say – and in the Congolese capital, the Chinese are welcome partners. They don’t ask a lot of questions and they’re not incessantly talking about fighting corruption and environmental sustainability.
Steve Hodgson is a man of order. When he turns onto the bumpy farm roads of Manono in his white Land Cruiser, he flips on his turn signal, even if there isn’t another vehicle anywhere nearby. He makes sure that all of the AVZ vehicles are parked in reverse and that nobody leaves an engine idling. Hodgson is a geologist and is responsible for the mine on site. He analyzes all of the latest drill samples and keeps an eye on the budget.
The clattering next to him is deafening as a bore rod is driven into the ground, almost 600 meters deep. Five-centimeter-thick sample columns are lined up next to him in bins, the product of earlier test drilling. Hodgson wipes the dusty stone columns with a damp cloth and they begin shining. He taps a whiteish spot on a column with his finger, an embedded crystal. "That’s the lithium,” the geologist says. The column is full of it.
Steve Hodgson and his colleagues sort sample drill cores in Manono.Foto: Arsene Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL
Manono is home to what is likely the world's largest lithium deposit.Foto: Arsene Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL
To extract the coveted raw material, a broad patch of earth must first be dug up before the rock is then crushed, with the result being SC6, a substance that contains 6 percent lithium oxide. That's how it is then sold. AVZ’s plans call for the extraction of 700,000 tons of it per year, and the company’s share price shot through the roof in early 2021. But the initial euphoria has since dissipated, and trading of the company’s shares on the Australian stock exchange has been suspended pending a resolution of the conflict in Congo. According to media reports, numerous investors are preparing a class-action lawsuit against AVZ, alleging that the company failed to notify them of the risks in a timely manner, particularly with it looking increasingly unlikely that Kinshasa will ever issue a mining license. The Ministry of Mines did not respond to a query from DER SPIEGEL.
Steve Hodgson parks his pickup at the upper end of the camp that the mining company has set up, right next to the deep craters of the old tin mine. Dozens of men in blue overalls are hammering, sawing and installing electric cable, building one-story stone houses for the miners. "Everything needs to be done by the time we finally get the license,” says Hodgson. Almost as if they are clinging to any straws they can find; building walls to protect themselves from the ongoing game of geopolitical charades.
The geologist then drives down to the village, across the old metal bridge and past the roadblock, where a group of men collect money from those who drive past, calling it a "toll.” They issue no receipts. Hodgson turns off, entering the AVZ concession. To the left and right, there are deep craters extending right up to the dirt track. The Belgians plowed up several square kilometers of earth in the search for tin, but if the Australians get their way, the craters will soon be a lot deeper.
An aerial view of pits dug by artisanal minersFoto: DER SPIEGEL
Hodgson points to a group of men standing in the lunar landscape with shovels and mesh filters. "There they are again,” he mumbles. "We have to find a solution.” The "they” he is referring to are residents of Manono who continue trying to extract tin from the old pits, generally finding enough to earn a couple of euros per day. The Australians will ultimately have to find a way to get rid of them once they move in with their heavy machinery. Not long ago, they tried to keep away the tin miners by hiring security guards. But the people of Manono are dependent on the paltry income they earn from the tin and the mood quickly soured. Now, the mine operators from Australia are planning to allocate an area for the small-time miners.
Several weeks ago, younger residents in Manono organized a demonstration. They demanded that a battery factory be built directly in their city so that they wouldn’t just be exporting a raw material but also creating added value locally. And the Congolese government does, in fact, have ambitious plans and has even established a battery research center at a university in the country. For now, though the focus continues to be on who holds sway over the world’s largest lithium deposits.
Steve Hodgson is now standing in front of the police station, together with a lawyer. He and his colleagues have had a large excavator confiscated that was in the concession without authorization, allegedly to collect gravel for road building. It quickly became clear, though, that the piece of heavy machinery was there at the behest of a Chinese company. The AVZ people believe it was intended as a show of power. The driver was arrested immediately, a minor victory. But a short time later, he was released.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.