Program to monitor Congo artisanal cobalt miners expanded

Reference image. Artisanal miners in Kaili, DRC. (Photo by Julien Harneis | Flickr Commons.)

A scheme to monitor and improve artisanal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will reach four times the number of sites it currently covers by 2023 after a deal was announced between RCS Global and the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI).

Cobalt, a by-product of copper or nickel, is used to make lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones and electric cars. Currently, about two-thirds of it comes out the DRC. However, due to the region’s intense poverty and the mineral’s soaring price, thousands of Congolese have flocked to the cobalt-rich areas to secure an income.

Some cobalt sourced in the country has come as a result under scrutiny for its potential use of child labour as well as due to the health and safety risks unsupervised, informal mining brings.

Germany’s RCS Global, which audits supply chains, launched the Better Mining initiative in 2018, collecting data on cobalt mine sites in Congo and giving mine operators “corrective action” plans when practices were found to be unsafe.

Artisanal mining can be an ethical source of low-cost, high-grade cobalt and a key mechanism in keeping the market balanced during supply shortages

Partnering with RMI will allow the Berlin-based organization to double the sites it monitors from three to six this year, and to 12 or more sites by 2023, the companies said in the statement.

The final goal is to help artisanal miners by opening the market for them. Western mining companies have tried distancing themselves from artisanal cobalt supply to forego the risk of inadvertently using raw materials sourced from child labour, which remains rampant in central Africa.

Tesla, Google and Apple were among the firms sued by a human rights group in December about their alleged involvement in abusive mining practices in the DRC.

The RCS-RMI joint action seeks to prove that artisanal cobalt mining can be a responsibly-managed, viable source of the metal, used in the batteries that power electric vehicles, smartphones and computers.

“We are determined to unlock the demand for responsibly produced ASM cobalt,” Leah Butler, vice president of the Responsible Business Alliance said. “We encourage companies along the value chain to actively engage in this effort.”

According to Amnesty International, children as young as seven have been found scavenging for rocks containing cobalt in the DRC. The group also claims to have evidence that the cobalt those miners dig has been entering the supply chains of some of the world’s biggest brands.

Traditionally, artisanal miners have sold their ore to local cooperatives, which then sell it to local merchants and traders. They, in turn, sell to international traders or operating mines with established transport links, and that cobalt ends up being exported mostly to China.

Those and other allegations have put pressure on companies and on traders. The London Metal Exchange (LME), the world’s biggest market for industrial metals, has plans to ban metal tainted by human rights abuses. The initiative to ensure responsible sourcing originally had 2022 as the deadline, but LME will now wait until 2025.

In May 2017, The European Union passed a regulation to stop abuse of mine workers and conflict minerals being exported to the EU. The requirement to ensure mineral imports are responsibly sourced will become effective on January 1, 2021.