Mining cobalt better

While the post-COVID-19 world looks at ‘building back better’, little has changed for artisanal cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Over the last 12 months, IIED’s research in partnership with Afrewatch DRC has found nascent efforts to improve the sector to be at risk of creating “islands of responsibility” while failing to drive the broad based societal and environmental change envisaged by the ‘building back better’ agenda.

Abbi Buxton's picture
Insight by 
Abbi Buxton
Abbi Buxton is an associate in IIED's Natural Resources research group
29 September 2021
Two men carry a tray on the muddy side of a stretch of water, while another man, bending down, sorts through small stones

Cobalt is an essential element within supply chains driving the technological transition to electric vehicles. A majority of the world’s estimated cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 10-30% of Congo’s annual production mined artisanally (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

The OECD provides an overview of ‘building back better’ (BBB): an effort to avoid a return to ‘business as usual’ and the environmentally destructive investments and activities that characterised the pre-COVID-19 world.

Essential to BBB is improved societal resilience – greater wellbeing, equality and inclusiveness – and greater environmental resilience, with climate-responsive strategies and increased circularity in supply chains.

The artisanal cobalt sector exemplifies some of the inherent contradictions in the green energy sector and the BBB agenda.

Cobalt is a required metal within the battery technology driving the transition to ‘greener’ electric vehicles. It also provides an income to 150,000-200,000 artisanal miners and their dependents in impoverished areas of the DRC.

However, cobalt mining – both industrial and artisanal – has significant environmental impacts ranging from habitat destruction to water and air pollution. And the artisanal cobalt sector, which supplies 10-30% of cobalt out of the DRC (the world’s largest supplier of cobalt), is beset with extreme social and human rights challenges. This includes child labour, forced labour and the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

A rocky landscape

Artisanal mining tunnels dug into a hillside in the DRC’s Copperbelt – an area once with unique biodiversity heritage.  Artisanal (and large-scale) mining’s reputation for environmental damage is well known. While more effective regulation is needed to tackle these environmental challenges, so is greater opportunity for equal income earning opportunity both inside and outside the sector (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the artisanal cobalt sector was first to trigger a five-month lockdown from April to September 2020 in which all mines were technically required to shut. Significant export difficulties meant reduced demand for cobalt and fewer traders.

Two people carrying bags up a rocky incline

Artisanal cobalt miners use basic tools, have little income stability, and have few health and safety protections. There are initiatives to improve safety in the sector - it is vital to ensure that safety standards apply to all actors, and that the costs aren’t simply passed on to artisanal miners (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

Some miners continued to mine – unable to find alternative work or rely on any social safety nets. For the same amount of back breaking work, miners were forced to accept significantly lower prices (sometimes a third of pre-COVID-19 prices) to cover their expenses alone.

A man crouches on his haunches under canvas next to a large hole in the ground

Tunnels often reach far further than the 30 metre legal maximum. Poor governance and few incentives to adhere to regulations allow tunnels to reach up to 90 metres – risking collapse, landslides and death. Miners remain underground in hot, dusty conditions for days at a time, relying on generators for oxygen (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

Once lockdown lifted, however, it was very much a return to business as usual – not ‘building back better’. Cobalt prices rebounded in early 2021 to reach levels not seen since 2018.

The DRC government and powerful supply chain actors have been working hard to revamp the sector’s image and practices. However, IIED and Afrewatch’s research into these efforts over the past year has concluded that the way these initiatives are currently structured risk creating “islands of responsibility” within a sea of ongoing marginalisation – increasing, not overcoming, inequality between powerful multinational companies and local miners.

Men in overalls and hard hats outside a row of blue buildings

'Trading houses' were designed to increase competition among cobalt buyers, lifting prices for miners. But the introduction of a five-year monopoly agreement linked to a responsible sourcing standard risks driving a black market, as most artisanal miners won't be able to meet the standards required (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

The OECD identifies a key vulnerability in our societies and economic system: “prioritising short-term economic growth and efficiency over long-term resilience – can have huge societal costs”.

Conversations during our research indicated that the corporate, capitalist culture that continues to dominate discussions on ‘more responsible mineral sourcing’ is at odds with the longer-term perspectives that are needed to drive structural change in the artisanal cobalt sector.

Fundamental challenges, as identified by miners themselves, include:

  • Insufficient licenced artisanal mining zones (which would also need proven cobalt reserves and financing to undertake necessary groundworks)
  • Unfair and corrupt pricing and value assessment to miners for cobalt, and
  • Unrepresentative and undemocratic worker led cooperative.

Key actions are needed to ensure a resilient and inclusive cobalt sector.

Greater inclusivity and equality in the artisanal cobalt sector in the DRC require access first for artisanal miners to mineral licences over proven cobalt reserves.

Currently, much of the DRC’s Copperbelt is already under license to industrial mining companies, including the parastatal Gecamine. Greater equality for artisanal miners requires policymakers to address the industrial mining bias within decision making in the mineral sector.

It also requires them to tackle the disincentives to change created by the system of ‘informal’ payments to political elites benefiting from an informal artisanal sector.

Women stand in water washing cobalt

Women in the artisanal cobalt sector are regularly excluded from mining and relegated to lesser paid roles such as washing cobalt. Research indicates that women suffer disproportionately from the effects of dangerous working conditions, degraded health, harsh manual labour, increased domestic workloads and sexual violence (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

Greater equality requires fairer pricing and a fair living wage for artisanal miners – commensurate with the level of wealth driven through supplier chains for battery operated goods.

Equality further requires explicit efforts to tackle endemic gender discrimination. Women remain culturally and therefore economically sidelined within the artisanal mining sector. Yet the sector potentially offers women greater earning potential than agriculture and service industries.

Men load a truck with heavy bags

Responsible supply chain initiatives need to address structural challenges and ensure inclusivity to avoid risk creating “islands of responsibility”—artisanal cobalt mine sites that perform well on social, labour and environmental indicators while potentially fuelling a burgeoning black market of miners who are unable to meet these higher standards (Photo: Afrewatch 2020)

Greater inclusivity needs miners to have a space and a voice where decisions are made.

Many current supply chain and government initiatives have had limited direct engagement with miners to inform the development of ASM cobalt sourcing standards – decisions that directly impact their livelihoods. This inevitably leads to efforts that are not fit for purpose and fail to drive and incentivise changes in practices at a large scale.

Miners, both male and female, need also to be more effectively represented within local cooperative structures that are currently seen as a primary instrument in the drive towards formalisation.

While our research didn’t cover environmental impacts, the fact that the region is a net importer of food from Zambia highlights the challenges of growing food in areas set aside for mining.

Greater efforts are needed to bring issues of food security, climate change and environmental resilience into current discussions within DRC policy circles and at the supply chain level in, for example, the Global Battery Alliance and Cobalt Action Partnership.