Human rights abuses associated with artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) 'Making Mining Safe and Fair: Artisanal cobalt extraction in the DRC' White Paper, published in September.
Amnesty International business, security and human rights head Mark Dummett says artisanal mining is a lifeline for millions of impoverished people in the DRC and that various companies are working with the authorities to formalise it, make it safer, remove child labour and provide miners with a fair price.
The paper highlights that global demand for cobalt – a key component of lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronics and electric vehicles – is expected to grow fourfold by 2030.
More than 70% of the global production of cobalt takes place in the DRC, of which 15% to 30% comes from so-called artisanal and small-scale mines (ASM) where independent miners use their own resources to extract the mineral.
According to the paper, sourcing cobalt from the DRC is linked to major human rights risks. The prevalence of ASM in the cobalt supply chain creates challenges for establishing responsible sourcing practices.
The insights from three ASM formalisation projects stem from field research conducted in Kolwezi, in the DRC, in September 2019, with insights largely drawn from the Mutoshi site because it is the only running ASM cobalt formalisation project.
The paper finds that human rights risks, including child labour, are greatly elevated in ASM operations; yet ASM is often the sole form of livelihood for those in destitute local communities.
As such, the WEF suggests that any efforts to develop responsible sourcing practices need to focus primarily on ASM operations, both on ASM sites and ASM activities that take place within large-scale industrial mining (LSM) concessions.
In this regard, the WEF suggests that companies sourcing cobalt from the DRC implement sustainable sourcing strategies that include the establishment of clear labour standards in line with the DRC’s mining code and a system to implement those standards.
This formalisation of ASM sites on LSM concessions will require a range of actions including fencing off mining sites with access controls, introducing safety measures, and the mechanical preparation of openpits that do not require deep pits or tunnel constructions.
In addition, the formalisation will involve one or multiple independent cooperatives of artisanal miners to oversee the implementation of safety standards and negotiations with the mining company.
According to the paper, the formalisation of ASM practices is an essential step to address the widespread human rights problems that are prevalent today at Congolese mining sites. The jobs and income created on formalised ASM sites can also help reduce extreme poverty, which is a root cause of child labour.
The formalisation of ASM, according to the paper, will produce a number of social and economic benefits for local communities. These may include creating stable employment for adults, which will reduce the need for extra income from child labour and provide funds for school fees; ensuring safer working conditions and reducing the number of accidents through capacity- and skills-building training for miners.
It will also result in achieving higher productivity levels and generating higher income for miners as a result of better-organised operations, as well as promote female employment and respect for women across a range of mining tasks, including the best-remunerated ones.
Further, formalisation will improve the health of miners and community members, create new business opportunities and ensure effective and transparent representation of miners’ labour rights through the formation of cooperatives.
Formalisation will also require the development of industry standards, performance metrics and an implementation system that includes routine monitoring and evaluation of mining operations to ensure compliance. The WEF states that these standards must respond to industry needs and address the very specific human rights and environmental impacts of each different operational site.
In addition to the formalisation of ASM sites, the paper highlights the importance of understanding the multidimensional root causes of persistent human rights issues in the DRC’s mining context.
In this regard, the paper suggests addressing underlying socioeconomic causes related to extreme poverty, food insecurity, lack of social protection systems and an underinvestment in affordable education and health services requiring specific attention.