Spotlight on Cobalt

To build a green, sustainable and technology-driven economy, companies in the electronic and automotive industries are relying increasingly on battery technology. The performance of batteries is tightly tied to cobalt, which plays a critical stabilising role during recharging. As the demand for mobile communications and electric vehicles (EV) increases, the search for reliable and responsible sources of cobalt intensifies.    

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is by far the world’s largest cobalt producer. The southern province of Lualaba (formerly Katanga), lying within the highly mineralised Copper Belt zone, has a long history of industrial mining. Rich cobalt deposits are found alongside the copper from which the area derives its label, concentrated around a handful of cities. 

Reputed to be some of the largest in the world, these mineral resources are estimated to comprise 51% of global cobalt reserves and currently, more than 70% of global production – an equivalent of 100,000 metric tons in 2019.

While industrial cobalt mining accounts for approximately 80-85% of freshly mined cobalt production, artisanal mining (ASM) makes up the balance and, historically, provided even greater volumes when large mines were not operating. Nearing the end of the Second Congo War in 2002, an estimated 90% of all cobalt mining was artisanal. Today, ASM is said to make up about 20% of Congolese national production, totalling approximately 20,000 tonnes in 2019.

The complex challenges associated with ASM cobalt mining

While cobalt is important for economic development, public discourse around its production has been largely negative. Its extraction process holds strong ties to poverty driven child-labour, unsafe working conditions, lack of transparency in local mineral markets and inequitable distribution of benefits. This has created a rift in how cobalt is characterised. On one hand, it is the key to reaching a clean carbon-free future; on the other hand, it is a mineral that brings unwanted risks to corporate reputations and brand value.

Working conditions at mine sites

Most artisanal cobalt mining sites in the DRC do not have adequate equipment or the capacity to monitor the safety of miners. Men descend down pits, which frequently exceed the maximum depth limit of 30 meters, without gloves, boots or hard hats, their only assistance is a cheap torch acting as a light source. Lack of proper management has also allowed diggers to excavate horizontal tunnels around the shafts, destabilising the entire area. Fatalities at these sites are unacceptably high and accidents are extremely frequent, however, only the best run sites have access to emergency equipment and clinics.

Childrens’ Rights

Artisanal mining has been labeled one of the worst offenders of child labour by some international rights groups. Thousands of children have been recorded working on cobalt mining sites since 2014, some spending more than 24 hours underground (Amnesty 2016). Although much has been done to reduce these instances, child labour is still reported from the cobalt fields of the DRC. Many children, once removed from one mining site, will find work at another. With school fees putting a tremendous strain on the incomes of many families, children are either unable to attend school and instead complete domestic work or miss days or weeks of class-time to help fund their own education. This being said, child labour is not necessarily in competition with school attendance, as school hours are limited to just a few hours per day and no after school activities are provided. With nowhere else to go, many children follow older family members to work.

Transparency

Not all miners are salaried employees, many are freelance workers who are digging cobalt on a production share system who receive a proportion of the profit after selling it to traders at local markets. The quality and yield of the cobalt is generally determined by the traders, some using equipment altered to favour the buyer, rather than the workers that do not possess the technology to record and weigh their own product. Freelance workers are often given unfair or inaccurate prices for the cobalt they excavated from the earth. Such markets come under little scrutiny from the authorities, and so miners are often exploited.

Lack of economic alternatives

The possibilities open to the DRC to strengthen and diversify their economy are abundant; regarding its natural resources, soil fertility, and availability of land, the country is thought to be one of the richest in the world. Many towns have become dependent on the mining sector, however, and have not attempted to diversify their income sources. This leaves the DRC with a limited range of employment possibilities that are unrelated to mining, a reliance on the import of goods that could be procured from their own assets and the decrease of competitive pricing for their non-cobalt exports; all symptoms of Dutch disease or, as it’s often known, the Resource Curse.

Informality and illegality

While the DRC government permits artisanal mining at specially designated areas, as of 2020 only one out of 60 is currently operational. These areas require exploration and development, an expensive process that many ASM operators cannot easily afford. The majority of ASM takes place in mining zones not designated specifically for ASM and that require a formal agreement to operate. Some ASM operators either falsely claim to have such an agreement, possess agreements that have expired or ones that were issued by entities that have no legal authority to do so. While this informal practice can persist for years, it can also result in the removal of ASM from sites devastating the jobs of the miners and, in worst cases, resulting in local conflict. While such loose application of national rules and regulations  can be accepted locally, it can also leave operators, mine workers and shareholders unwilling to invest in improvements at ASM sites and in the security of workers.

OUR SOLUTIONS-FOCUSED APPROACH

Making ASM sites safer

We believe that workers’ health and safety, their terms of employment and trade transparency can be supported through the provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), worker trainings and transparent and fair buying practices at the trading stations (or depots). Measures to address trade terms should include, but not be limited to the provision of independent purity and weight measurements and potentially guidelines for pit-owners regarding the minimum welfare workers shall receive.

Fostering access to education

The occurrence of child labour in mining is a symptom of widespread poverty in the region and is not exclusive to the mining sector. To prevent children from working inside any of the cobalt mines, we assist operators to establish credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of the mines. But we cannot stop there. In order to tackle and prevent child labour not just inside the mines, but throughout the communities, it is necessary  to support the enrolment of children into school, allowing children and youth access to education and vocational training.

A systemic value chain approach

The problems associated with ASM cobalt mining have chronic poverty at their root. The prices paid for the mineral, the revenue its sales generate for the government, and how those are distributed, seldom seem to benefit the miners and their families equitably or allow for investment in mine sites and working conditions. It is a systemic problem and its solution lies in a collective responsibility for action. Any organisation operating as part of — or associated with — the global cobalt supply chain should consider how it might best contribute to a solution. By taking an holistic approach, incorporating every stage of the cobalt supply chain, we can identify root causes and construct effective solutions to address the issues upstream.

Supporting entrepreneurship

It is our aim to address the root causes that perpetuate the high risks associated with artisanal mining. These root causes drive miners towards dangerous scenarios including the continually engaging in unsafe mining procedures and children participating in mining practices. Poverty constitutes one of the root causes of the ASM-related child labour and hazardous working conditions. In an effort to support the ASM community transition into sustainable livelihoods, we are investing in off-site broader community programmes, designed to create sustainable livelihoods for as many community members as possible.

Learn more about our DRC cobalt programm
and the Fair Cobalt Alliance

Research Report: Digging for Change

Read more about worker roles, dynamics and working conditions at ASM cobalt sites in the DRC, as per the analysis of conditions at two selected mine sites: Kasulu and Kamilombe. Forming the basis for our work on improving conditions, this report contextualises some of the complex challenges around cobalt ASM, pointing out our roadmap towards safer and fairer artisanal cobalt mines.

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The Fair Cobalt Alliance

The FCA is an action platform founded by businesses dedicated to improving conditions of the artisanal and small-scale mining operations from which cobalt is sourced. Organisations from all parts of the cobalt supply chain band together to create safe working conditions, fair trading principles, combat child labour and promote alternative livelihoods for the mining communities in the DRC.