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Avoidance of DRC and its cobalt won’t solve persisting ethical problems

The issues of child labour, hazardous working conditions and unfair remuneration within the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) sector will not be solved by simply avoiding the DRC and choosing not to buy cobalt that originates from the country.

This was the view of Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) CEO Assheton Carter who spoke on a panel titled: “Bringing together the supply chain for a fair cobalt sector and thriving ASM communities” as part of the two-day DRC Mining Week Online event held on 14 and 15 June.

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Carter explained that since the publication of the 2016 Amnesty International report titled: “This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt”, the unethical cobalt mining situation in the DRC has changed very little – mostly because the root cause has not been addressed and because downstream cobalt companies and end users of the metal have instead tried to avoid the DRC and its cobalt, as opposed to get involved in improving the situation.

He said that while trying to avoid DRC-originating cobalt is not only difficult, doing so will not solve the problem or the reputational risks associated with procuring cobalt from the DRC.

“We believe that ASM cobalt will remain part of the Lualaba Province’s mining landscape for the foreseeable future,” he said, adding that measures need to be taken, not to avoid DRC cobalt, but instead to unlock associated development opportunities.

“Artisanal mining should not be seen as an outlaw [sector], but as people wanting to make a living,” said Carter, noting that careful attention must however be paid to not inadvertently criminalise or marginalise the ASM sector and the cobalt it produces.

More downstream involvement needed in copper supply chain

Part of the way in which downstream cobalt players and offtakers can leverage the DRC cobalt market is by assisting cobalt miners to become recognised as fair and responsible within the market.

What is needed is investment into the responsible future of these mining communities.

“Rather than trying to exclude artisanal mining, lets instead invest in including ASM as a legitimate actor in the cobalt supply chain,” he said.

Carter said the FCA has a plan in place to address the legacy and ethical issues of DRC cobalt, with the first priority being to highlight the challenges that the sector faces.

Carter acknowledged that the DRC’s ASM cobalt sites are far from perfect, with a lot of work to be done to rectify the situation. He said that that the FCA is neither suggesting a quick fix, nor that the artisanal mining sector be formalised, approved or regarded as responsible overnight. He instead said that the FCA aims at highlighting and showing cobalt end-users that positive change within the ASM is possible, achievable and much more in reach than many may think.

FCA’s approach to responsible cobalt

The FCA’s approach to bettering the DRC cobalt industry is based on three interlocking strategies.

Firstly, by creating safe and fair working conditions for the men and women working within the ASM sector by providing access to equipment, finance and technical assistance.

Secondly, the Alliance is simultaneously targeting the combatting of child labour by supporting ASM operators to establish credible controls and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of mines in the first place. In this regard, the FCA is also tackling a route cause of the child labour by providing access to education and focusing on community development.

As its third strategy, the FCA is systemically aiming to increase household incomes through driving financial literacy and fostering alternative livelihoods and entrepreneurship to provide families with a choice – in line with the global goal of development, he says.

FCA’s work on the ground

FCA is involved with work at cobalt mining sites in the Lualaba Province in the mining town of Kolwezi (starting at two mine sites – Kasulu and Kamilombe), where it works directly with cooperatives, artisanal miners and ASM site operators with a physical presence at such sites.

To enable safe and responsible practices at these ASM sites, the FCA works with the mine concession operator – Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) which is a subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt and mining co-operatives KOMIKO and CMDS – towards continuous improvement, but also with provincial government authorities and state services related to the Ministry of Mines, including the DRC government service devoted to supporting artisanal and small-scale miners known as SAEMAPE, says Carter.

However, because change does not happen overnight, the FCA uses the principle of continuous improvement, rather than setting unreachable standards impossible for 99% of the artisanal mines sites to attain and that many would consider as exclusionary for them to earn a living.

As such, the FCA has developed a step-by-step improvement plan with the ASM operators, enabling them to make progress improvements over three to four years, boosted by a Kolwezi-based team that has weekly interactions with cooperatives and mine site operators to assist with increasing technical expertise.

“We will not limit our sites to only the better run mines, but also include less developed mine sites as well, as for us, the inclusivity of the whole sector is important,” Carter said.

FCA membership at a glance

The continually growing FCA membership from across the cobalt supply chain currently includes electric vehicle manufacturers: Tesla, Volvo Cars and Sono Motors; electronics manufacturers: Fairphone, Signify, and Shift; mining and metals companies, Glencore, Huayou Cobalt, China Molybdenum Co. (CMOC) – the second largest cobalt producer and the largest tungsten producer in the world – and its Geneva-based trading arm, IXM, which joined in June 2021; and battery manufacturer: Amperex Technology, who joined the FCA earlier this year.

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Chantelle Kotze
Chantelle Kotze is a Johannesburg-based media professional. She is a contributor at Mining Review Africa (Clarion Events - Africa) and has created content for the media brand over the past 6 years.