Staff writer Hannah Gordon explores how increased demands for cobalt are fuelling dangerous mining practices in The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
As the world becomes ever increasingly reliant on renewable energy sources, new raw materials essential to constructing green energy infrastructure are experiencing surging demand. One such element is cobalt- whose heat resistance makes it the perfect metal to serve in the batteries of electric cars. With major car companies such as Jaguar, Mini and Volvo pledging to “go electric” by 2030, this metal will be essential to the green transition.
70% of the world`s cobalt is sourced in the Haut- Katanga and Lualaba region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where vast quantities of land have been eroded to make way for industrial mines. These industrial mines have employed a high-risk extractive method called ‘artisanal mining’, a concerning practice which involves many severe human rights abuses, according to a 2023 Amnesty International report. While EV batteries may save our planet, let’s make sure it doesn’t do so at the cost of the least well-off in society.
What is artisanal mining?
‘Artisanal mining’ is an international form of manual labour independent of larger-scale businesses or co-operatives that can often be dangerous, rudimentary and highly unregulated. In the case of ‘artisanal mining’ in the DRC, ‘creusers’ (diggers) enter tunnels that are “up to 100 metres” deep with basic tools like a pickaxe and rope. Some of the land these ‘artisanal miners’ work on is illegal as “they are infringing on industrial miners territory“. Despite the risks and uncertainties, the workers are so desperate to source cobalt that they continue mining in the shadow of industrial mines and are even “digging down into the basement of their houses … to access the cobalt”. According to Africa News, ” artisanal miners says they can make equivalent of $200 on a good week”. However, The Financial Times suggests this number is much less with artisanal miners earning “between $1 and $3 a day“, around $7 and $21 per week.
Despite the severe hazards, “artisanal and small-scale mining is estimated to employ an estimated 200,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and over a million more are indirectly involved through trade and transport”, reports ABC News.
In the book ‘Cobalt Red: How the Blood of Congo Power Our Lives’ Siddharth Kara, writes about the horrors he witnessed when visiting cobalt mines in 2018.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Kara said “artisanal mining makes you think of craftsmen or people baking bread or something. In fact, it’s grindingly poor people scraping and scrounging in pits and trenches with pickaxes, shovels, their bare hands, and strips of rebar, in tattered rags as they gather up cobalt-bearing ore, stone, and pebbles into sacks. And that’s called artisanal mining, meaning people with their hands as opposed to miners equipment”. Kara’s words highlight the life-threatening conditions ‘artisanal miners’ face on a daily basis. The combination of low pay and poor labour conditions is why Kara suggests the the sector could be “on par with old world slavery”.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Abuses
In 2016, Amnesty International released a report on the DRC’s cobalt mining industry. The documents make for harrowing reading and showcase multiple human rights violations including hazardous working conditions, severe health risks from cobalt exposure, risk of fatal accidents and child labour.
This latter violation was particularly severe. According to the report, the work of children and women in the artisanal mining sector happens “above ground”. After the men descended into the makeshift mines, they would bring cobalt to the women and children to be “washed and sorted”. Some children as young as 6 would even carry bags between 20 and 40 kg around the mines. There have also been reports of sexual exploitation and cruel physical abuse but with many unable to afford school, they have no choice but to endure inhumane treatment.
Human rights abuses continue in the artisanal mining sector yet many large companies are adamant their supply chain is free of any child labour. However, in December 2012, a lawsuit was filed by International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 Congolese families who alleged companies including Microsoft, Google, Tesla, Apple, Dell, and cobalt mining giant, Glencore had “specific knowledge” that cobalt was being extracted in exploitative conditions. Claimants said children were forced to mine cobalt and “six of the 14 children in the case were killed in tunnel collapses, and the others suffered life-altering injuries, including paralysis”, reported Al Jazeera.
After the 2016 Amnesty International report, technology and automobile companies have come under scrutiny regarding the ethics of cobalt extraction in DRC. There has been more effort to find solutions and reassure customers that their phones, iPads and electric cars are not the result of exploitative child labour.
In December 2022, Microsoft’s chief of staff, tech and corporate responsibility, Michele Burlington, visited the Mutoshi artisanal mining site to better understand the labour conditions. They concluded that the Congo cobalt crisis would need a “coalition to be solved”. Though an optimistic idea, little detail has been provided as to what this coalition may look like or who it may involve.
The artisanal mining sector has seen signs of optimism in the past but promises have not always delivered. For example, the same mining site visited by Michele Burlington was a “highly successful pilot scheme for formalising artisanal workers until it was closed in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions”. Since then, the conditions for miners have gotten progressively worse. Formalising mines is an extensive and costly process so many question whether it is a sustainable solution.
There are also Eastern and Western tensions being played out in the battle for cobalt. The Chinese monopoly over the cobalt trade in Congo is a worry to the West whose companies still need the metal to survive. As a consequence – the USA signed a memorandum of understanding with the DRC and Zambia to develop its own supply chain. This move sets the stage for more cobalt extraction in the future.
The Future of ‘Artisanal Mining’
Cobalt is still in high demand as ambitious goals for electric vehicles are yet to be met. Apple has pledged to use recycled cobalt in all their products by 2025 and wants to work with local communities to develop better supply chains.
The DRC government needs to play a greater role in regulating mining conditions and protecting the economic rights of ‘artisanal miners’ who “express frustration at the lack of opportunity industrial mining provides”. The International Crisis group have recommended the formation of artisanal mining zones to “protect these new sites from being taken over by industrial mining companies” and help foster cooperation between these two groups.
Across all tech companies, car companies and cobalt suppliers there needs to be greater steps to due diligence. Complying with international standards could help improve mining conditions and ensure that mining exploitations are being recognised and dealt with.
According to S&P Commodity Global Insights, cobalt’s “global consumption is seen reaching 216,000 mt in 2024, up 7% year on year”. Due to the use of cobalt in many technological devices and EV batteries – this is unsurprising. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and Currys are encouraging consumers to play a role in reducing mining demand by recycling their old technology products. In a Reuters article, emphasis is also placed on the buyer as “the Western consumer’s desire to pay a premium for responsibly sourced cobalt may be the ultimate test of whether a Western coalition can simultaneously loosen China’s grip on the cobalt market and alleviate the plight of Congo’s artisanal miners”.
One thing is for certain – urgent action must be taken. Siddharth Kara makes it abundantly clear that artisanal and industrial mining are “fundamentally intertwined”. With 1 million people employed in ‘artisanal mining’ for cobalt, many of our favourite products could have human violations plastered all over it.