Hunt for the ‘Blood Diamond of Batteries’ Impedes Green Energy Push

A man in a pinstripe suit with a red pocket square walked around the edge of a giant pit one April afternoon, where hundreds of workers often toil in flip-flops, burrowing deep into the ground with shovels and pickaxes.

His shoes were crunched on by the miners' spilled nylon bags.

The chairman of the government agency that works with international mining companies to tap the nation's copper and cobalt reserves is a power broker named Albert Yuma Mulimbi.

The goal of Mr. Yuma is to turn the country into a reliable supplier of cobalt, a critical metal in electric vehicles, and to rid it of its reputation as a place where children are put to work and unskilled and ill-equipped diggers get injured or killed.

Mr. Yuma, who had pulled up to the Kasulo site in a fleet of SUVs carrying a high-level delegation to observe the challenges there, said that we have to reorganize the country and take control of the mining sector.

Mr. Yuma is a problem in the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to confidential State Department legal files reviewed by The New York Times, he has been accused of helping to divert billions of dollars in revenues as chairman of Gcamines, the state-owned mining enterprise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

State Department officials tried to force him out of the mining agency and put him on a sanctions list because he has abused his position to enrich friends, family members and political allies.

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Albert Yuma Mulimbi is the chairman of Gcamines, a state-owned mining company.

Mr. Yuma is trying to clear his name in Washington and the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while pushing ahead with his plans to reform the mining industry.

According to interviews, Mr. Yuma has hired a roster of well-connected lobbyists, wired an undisclosed amount of money to a former White House official, and made a visit to Trump Tower in New York.

Mr. Yuma met with Donald Trump Jr. at a mining executive's place of business. He was barred from entering the United States just two months after high-level access was granted.

His hold on the mining industry has complicated the effort to attract new Western investors and secure its place in the clean energy revolution, which it is already helping to fuel with its vast wealth of minerals and metals.

The metal has become known as the blood diamond of batteries because of its high price and dangerous conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a result, carmakers concerned about consumer blowback are rapidly moving to find alternatives to the element in electric vehicles, and they are increasingly looking to other nations with smaller reserves as possible suppliers.

If human-rights issues are not addressed in the mines, the role of the emerging economy could be diminished. Even if Mr. Yuma works to resolve those problems, it may not be enough for new American investors who want to be assured the country has taken steps to curb a history of mining-industry corruption.

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Jose Bumba pulled a 220-pound bag of cobalt from a hole in the ground. Working conditions on such sites can be dangerous.

The president of the country tried to sideline Mr. Yuma by stacking his own appointees, but he was unwilling to cross him further. Mr. Tshibakedi said he had a plan to fix the country's mining conditions.

He said that it was not going to be up to Mr. Yuma. The government will make the decision.

The power struggles that have torn apart African countries rich with natural resources in the past are mirrored by the standoff between Mr. Yuma and the president. The global battle against climate change calls for a stepped-up transition from gasoline-burning vehicles to battery-powered ones, and how this one plays out has implications far beyond the continent.

Will Mr. Yuma help the country ride the global green wave into an era of new prosperity or will he help condemn it to more turmoil?

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Kasulo used to be a prosperous village. A rush of independent miners tore up the land after a resident discovered cobalt.

Statues greet motorists at the main roundabout. One picture shows a miner in a hard hat and boots, while the other shows a shirtless man holding a pickax. They tell the story of the country's dual mining economies.

Global corporations like China Molybdenum have their own problems, but they are not to blame for the country's reputation abroad.

Mr. Yuma plans to focus the bulk of his reforms on the artisanal sector. Comprising of ordinary adults with no formal training, and sometimes even children, the practice of artisanal mining is mostly unregulated and often involves scavengers on land owned by the industrial mines. There are streams of diggers on motorbikes loaded with bags of looted cobalt that dodge checkpoint by popping out of the thickets along the main highway.

Thousands of parents send their children to search for a job because they can't find one. A group of young boys were collecting rocks that had fallen off trucks on a road through two industrial mines.

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Workers crushed rocks to test their purity.

Some children have died in makeshift mines where they have climbed dozens of feet into the earth through narrow tunnels that are prone to collapse.

The gold-rush-like fervor that can lead to dangerous mining practices can be seen in Kasulo. The mine is nothing more than a series of crude gashes the size of city blocks that have been carved into the earth.

The village of Kasulo became a mining strip after a resident discovered chunks of cobalt underneath a home. Hundreds of people dug up their yards after the discovery.

A mango tree and a few purple bougainvillea bushes are the only remnants of village life. The hand-dug shafts where workers lower themselves and chip at the rock to extract chunks of cobalt are flooded by rain when the tarps are tied down.

He is a regular at the mine. Mr. Punga said he started working in diamond mines when he was 11. For the past three years, he has traveled the country searching for treasures, first gold, then copper, and finally cobalt.

Mr. Punga pulled his blue trousers away from his sneakers as he paused from digging. His shins were covered with scars from years of work. He makes less than $10 a day to support his family and keep his children in school.

He said he would do it if he could find another job. I am tired of digging.

Efforts are being made to improve safety and stop child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is already illegal.

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Outside of the city of Kolwezi, there is a buying house.

Under the plan, miners at Kasulo will be issued hard hats and boots, and will be forbidden from tunneling. Workers will be paid electronically, rather than in cash, to prevent fraud.

Mr. Yuma is the chairman of the board of directors. The small-scale mines that account for as much as 30% of the country's output are essential to the survival of the country, and Western investors and mining companies that are already in the country have little choice but to work with him.

The government will be able to tax the sales once the new agency buys it from the miners and standardizes prices for diggers. If the price of cobalt goes down, Mr. Yuma wants to create a fund to help workers.

The sound of sledgehammers smashing rocks drowns out all other noise in a mile-long stretch of tin shacks where diggers sell the cobalt. International traders assess the purity of the metal before buying it, and miners complain of being cheated.

Mr. Yuma led journalists on a tour of Kasulo and a nearby warehouse and laboratory complex intended to replace the buying shacks.

Mr. Yuma showed off the complex, which he said was the key product of the economic transition.

The International Energy Agency says that turning away from the Democratic Republic of the Congo would create more hardship for the miners and their families.

Activists point out that Mr. Yuma has yet to begin his plans to improve conditions for miners. Many senior government officials in both the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are questioning if Mr. Yuma is the right leader for the task because his efforts are mostly designed to enhance his reputation and further monetize the cobalt trade while doing little to curb the child labor and work hazard.

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Mr. Yuma was given a glass of champagne in his office.

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The workers crushed and packed the metal.

The bottles of Dom Pérignon were on ice next to Mr. Yuma, who was sitting in his office with chunks of precious metals and minerals in his hands. He drank an espresso before his interview with The Times. He said that his lifestyle was proof that he doesn't need to steal or scheme to get ahead.

He said that he was 20 years old when he drove his first BMW in Belgium, and that what was being said about him was not true.

Mr. Yuma is one of the richest businessmen in the country. He secured a prime swath of riverside real estate in Kinshasa, where his family set up a textile business that makes the nation's military uniforms. He is known for his extravagance. People still talk about his daughter's wedding, which had dancers in costumes and large white giraffe statues at the table, and it was a Las Vegas show.

He is the president of the country's powerful trade association and has served on the board of the central bank.

The mining agency where he is chairman was nationalized after the country gained independence. By the 1980s, Gcamines was one of the top copper producers in the world. There were good jobs that had good salaries, health care and education for employees and their families.

Anti-corruption groups say that Mobutu and his successors followed a pattern of raiding funds to support themselves. The production of Gécamines declined dramatically by the 1990s. Money wasn't reinvested into operations, and the agency amassed debt of more than $1 billion. Half of its work force was laid off.

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A copper factory in Lubumbashi in 1977.

The agency had a minority stake in some of the joint ventures.

Mr. Yuma promised to return Gcamines to its former glory. Anti-corruption groups say that mining revenues disappeared. The Carter Center estimated that $750 million vanished from Gécamines between 2011 and 2014, and blamed Mr. Yuma.

Dan Gertler is a billionaire diamond dealer from Israel. Mr. Gertler was put under U.S. sanctions for his involvement in corrupt mining and oil deals.

A confidential investigative report that was submitted to the State Department and Treasury was obtained by The Times and accuses Mr. Yuma of being a crony, holding stakes in textile and food-importing businesses that got funding from a government agency he helped oversee, and steering work to a mining contractor.

The American authorities believed that Mr. Yuma was using some of the mining-sector money to support Joseph Kabila, who had been put in charge of Gcamines.

The Carter Center was credited with the research in the State Department's annual report on human rights in Congo.

Mr. Yuma has been accused of cheating the country out of billions of dollars, but he thinks it's ridiculous.

Mr. Yuma called his critics and watchdog groups new colonialists. He claims that the mining companies colluded with him to stymie his efforts to change the industry, leaving the population in a form of modern slavery.

The Times received a 33-page document from Mr. Yuma detailing his defense, noting the many "veritable" smear campaigns that seek to sully his reputation and blur his major role in favor of the country through the reform of its mining policy.

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Mr. Yuma, who was banned from the United States, has hired lobbyists to make his case.

There was a lot of people in the room. The White House and State Department officials, mining executives, Senate staffers and other Washington elites sat down at the D.C. headquarters of a foreign policy group to listen to Mr. Yuma speak.

He said that they understood President Donald Trump's desire to secure the U.S. supply chain. It would be of the best interests of our country to work with American companies to develop projects for the supply of these minerals.

Mr. Yuma was accused of pillaging the country's revenues and was trying to convince Washington that he was a crucial link to the minerals and metals of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Joseph Szlavik was a lobbyist for Mr. Yuma, and he had worked for President George Bush.

He stayed at the Four Seasons and held meetings with officials from the World Bank and the Departments of Defense, Energy and the Interior. He met with Donald Trump Jr. in New York.

There, he was accompanied by a Texas hedge fund manager who was a major campaign fund-raiser for the former president as well as a close friend and former business partner of the younger Mr. Trump. Mr. Beach was invested with Mr. Trump in a mining project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He didn't reply to questions.

The president's son was introduced to Mr. Yuma by someone who wanted to say hello.

Mr. Trump did not recall the meeting.

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The foreman of a mining crew is in Kasulo.

Mr. Yuma said that he said the same thing over and over: American needed him, and he was ready to help.

In Washington, he gave important intel about Russia's efforts to acquire a shiny white metal that can be used in fighter jet engines. According to two American officials involved in the meeting, Mr. Yuma said he helped stop the sale to the United States.

There were signs of trouble during one of the trips. A member of his team was pulled aside by a State Department official and warned. Mr. Yuma was about to be punished for being a target of a corruption investigation by the United States.

The State Department prohibited him from returning to the United States in June of last year.

The State Department said in a statement that the actions were taken by several senior officials from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Mr. Yuma went to the Kasulo mine.
The action signaled to Mr. Yuma that he needed more strength. Herman Cohen was an assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Mr. Bush, and George Denison was an aide to Gerald Ford.

Joseph Gatt is a former airline and telephone executive who lives in Virginia and is close to Mr. Yuma. Mr. Gatt had a personal aide at the Fairmont who organized meetings with the lobbyists to try to get Mr. Yuma permission to visit the United States.

Mr. Gatt insisted that the allegations against him were false and that he was clean.

Mr. Yuma was working on elevating his standing in the country. State Department officials told The Times that Mr. Yuma would act as Mr. Kabila's proxy and become prime minister.

The United States strongly objected to the plan and a top American diplomat was sent to meet with Mr. Yuma at his home in Kinshasa. Things turned sour after Mr. Yuma pulled out a bottle of champagne.

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Joseph Kabila, the outgoing president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is at the inauguration of his successor.

The Americans were prepared to deport two of Mr. Kabila's daughters if he pursued his scheme.

If we revoked your visa, we could do the same with theirs, Mr. Pham said.

The aide to Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, was recruited by Mr. Yuma's team to deliver an invitation for Mr. Yuma to visit the United States. The invitation was shared with the Secretary of State. The attempt to get around the visa ban was what we saw.

He was still determined to get his way. Mr. Denison joined the Washington lobbying team to make sure that Mr. Yuma could travel to the United States and not face legal sanctions. The United States was considering placing Mr. Yuma on a sanctions list, which would have frozen his money in international banks.

A $3 million contract between the men did not mention that Mr. Denison was to promote the attractiveness of the business climate.

The emails show that Mr. Denison received over a million dollars in just a few days, with instructions to transfer most of it to an account belonging to Mr. Yuma. Mr. Denison was concerned that he might be involved in a money-laundering scheme after the transaction drew scrutiny from the bank.

Mr. Denison quit the job and returned all the funds he had.

Mr. Denison said that he was a huge crook.

Mr. Yuma did not respond to the question.

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The G20 summit in Rome last month had Mr. Biden and Mr. Tshisekedi at it. The two have formed a partnership.

The President and Mr. Yuma were walking near a canyon in the Copperbelt, a region so defined by mining that roadside markets sell steel-toed boots and hard hats alongside fresh eggs and spears of okra.

The outing in May was awkward for the two political rivals.

The Biden administration sees Mr. Tshisekedi as an ally in battling global warming, and fully embraced him after he took office in early 2019. He has appeared with Mr. Biden at international events, including a meeting in Rome last month and a few days later in Glasgow at the global climate conference.

Mr. Tshikakeedi wants to make the world capital for strategic minerals. Some officials think that Mr. Yuma needs to be ousted in order for that to happen.

One State Department official said that they have tried to apply pressure to have Mr. Yuma removed. The State Department was confused by the official's statement.

As he is known throughout much of the country for his business leadership, Mr. Yuma is carrying on as usual, followed by an assortment of aides who address him as President Yuma. It is a nod to his power base and ambitions.

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International traders can buy cobalt at the depot. People who work in mines complain of being cheated.

He is going to install seven new floors and a helipad in his office building. He had one of his lobbyists track down Mr. Tshibaedi in New York in September to convince him to support Mr. Yuma.

Mr. Yuma embarked on a nationwide tour this year that looked like a campaign for public office. He made his first stop in the hometown of Mr. Tshibadi, where he met with a group of pineapple juice sellers.

He gave the group $5,000 to start their business.

He explained in an interview that he wanted to show them that he supports them.

Mr. Yuma is hoping to get credit for attracting more U.S. investors, convinced that his reform efforts will turn the tide.

He said in the interview that he was a friend of America. I love America and I work to help the U.S. invest in D.R.C. My children attended the university. I will continue to help because people will understand I am a good friend of America.

The task will be difficult if he succeeds in transforming the mining sector.

On a main highway that runs through dozens of industrial mines, trucks groan with loads of copper and tub of chemicals used to extract metals.

There is a motorcycle after motorcycle, with one man driving and one sitting backward, acting as a lookout, atop huge bags of stolen cobalt.

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Motorcycles are heaped with metal on the road.

Dionne Searcey reported from Kasulo. Michael was in New York.