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Cobalt unveiled: navigating the complex world of artisanal cobalt mining

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Cobalt: from pigment to power

Cobalt is an element that until most recently, the majority of people knew hardly anything about. Those who knew of it, knew of the brilliant blue hue of its oxide mineral, which has been used for ages as a pigment. But with the increasing attention being paid to the energy transition away from the burning of fossil fuels to implementing clean, low-carbon energy technologies, this little-known metal is having its moment of fame, or some might say infamy. This element turns out to be an essential component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries namely used in electric vehicles (EV). Cobalt plays a key role in a battery’s ability to hold charge for extended periods of time, giving EVs the extended range that is required by drivers.

The geology of cobalt ores is fascinating. It is almost always found as a by-product together with copper and nickel. Arguably the most important deposit of cobalt is found within the Central African Copperbelt (Cailteux et al., 2005), with the cobalt deposits concentrated pre­dom­inant­ly in a small corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of Zambia. According to the Cobalt Institute, approximately 70% of the world’s cobalt demand is supplied by the DRC, with the majority coming from large scale mining (LSM) and a smaller, but significant amount (about 20%) extracted by artisanal small-scale mining (ASM), a sector largely misunderstood by the public. The most common definition of ASM is:

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“Formal or informal mining operations with predominantly simplified forms of exploration, extraction, processing, and transportation. ASM is less capital intensive and more labour intensive compared to large-scale mining. ASM can include men and women working on an individual basis as well as those working in family groups, in partnership, in teams or as members of cooperatives or other types of legal associations and enterprises involving hundreds or even thousands of miners.”

Fully understanding the dynamics of the ASM sector is very challenging, but often it is associated with mining under dangerous conditions and is linked to human rights abuses and incidents of child labor. However, for hundreds of thousands of people in the DRC, ASM mining is essential for their livelihoods and a growing number of studies are now recognizing that eliminating or isolating the ASM sector worsens these risks (Save the Children & The Centre for Child Rights and Business, 2021).

“Cobalt red”: a strong call for awareness and accountability

The recent book “Cobalt Red” published by British Academy Global Professor, and NY Times Best Selling Author Siddharth Kara details a heartbreaking and raw firsthand account of the conditions of some artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC. The book is written tailored to a larger audience, those who are unaware of the complexities of the ASM community and those with little knowledge of cobalt. The book highlights the immense poverty with which some of these miners live and the extreme and unacceptable risks they face when extracting ore. Notably, Cobalt Red has brought attention to wider consumers to the role that cobalt plays in our lives, found in our gadgets that we rely on daily, and some stark realities of the sourcing of cobalt.

Many argue this account is an oversimplification of a complex problem and such accounts threaten to demean the sector (Katz-Lavigne & Lukobo, 2023). While the appalling conditions of the ASM cobalt mining should not be tolerated, it is important to recognize how crucial ASM is to those who depend on it for survival. Such an account opens dialogue for a wider conversation of how the ASM community can be supported and incorporated into responsible mineral supply chains.

In September at the World Resources Forum Conference in Geneva, Professor Kara spoke about the conditions he observed firsthand and how downstream companies on the cobalt supply chain could improve the conditions upstream. He made the point:

If we but listen to the voices of the people at the bottom of these chains, if we but accept what our eyes can see are the realities of the bottom of the chain, then we can have a shared understanding of the truth. And I believe every corporate stakeholder, if presented with this truth, if they could take time out of their day to go down and see this truth and hear these voices, would feel compelled morally, ethically and as human citizens, to address the realities.

Changing the narrative: actions driving progress on the ground

There are now some initiatives aimed at improving the conditions of the ASM cobalt sector in the DRC. For example, Cobalt for Development is a pilot program that uses a holistic approach by working directly with the local mining cooperatives and governments by providing technical assistance to strengthen the sector’s legal compliance, health and working conditions, and improve environmental management, as well as administration and cooperative management.

Another example where various industry partners across the entire cobalt supply chain take a solutions focused approach is that of the Fair Cobalt Alliance.

The FCA is an action platform that mobilizes investment funds and other forms of support to improve artisanal mining sites. Some project successes include helping establish voluntary savings and loan associations to raise financial literacy of the community and help individuals and families save more efficiently or their assistance in establishing a rent-to-buy program where ore washers can access personal protective equipment (PPE) such as wader boots to protect themselves against infections from the polluted wash water (FCA, 2022).

FCA has also helped remediate child labor by partnering with other established organizations in creating a Child Labour Remediation Hub (CLR Hub) for support of child education, provide living stipends and physical and mental health services (FCA, 2022). Still, even with these positive examples, DRC’s ASM sector faces enormous challenges that need to be further addressed.

What next?

Certainly, the buzz generated by Cobalt Red has put a spotlight on a problem to which many in the west were mostly blind. Arguments can be made if such public visibility to a complex problem is the right way to go about improving the situation of the ASM communities. However, one thing is certain, much more concerted efforts must be made by the corporations along the value chain and by international community and local governments, to take tangible steps toward incorporating the artisanal community into the main mineral value chains.

Such efforts, for example as outlined by IISD in 2018, must include development of comprehensive legal frameworks, ensuring the sector has access to capital and to equipment, developing targeted capacity building on geological knowledge, sector formalization and best practices, and finally there must be dialogue established between the ASM sector and other stakeholders like local and federal governments to enable complete understanding of the realities facing the ASM communities and to ensure long-term improvements in their working conditions (IISD, 2018).

Representatives from the ASM sector need to have a seat at the discussion table to ensure they are fully represented, and their voices are heard. The World Resources Forum will be hosting a dialogue series with diverse members of the ASM community as well as change makers in the field with the goal of amplifying the voices of the ASM sector and to shed light on a wide range of perspectives on the challenges and the opportunities facing the sector.


Source: World Resources Forum

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