(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Andy Home
LONDON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - One reason the cobalt price has
gone supernova over the last year is the realisation that not
only does most of the available supply come from just one
country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but a good part
of it comes from artisanal mines.
In the case of cobalt, however, artisanal mining may
in fact be part of the solution to securing long-term supplies
of the "hot" metal used for lithium-ion batteries key to the
electric vehicle revolution.
The real problem in the DRC is less this mining itself, but
more the lawlessness that surrounds it and makes much of the
cobalt from the region effectively a "conflict mineral".
For as Apple has already found out and automotive
companies are learning, it's tricky enough selling yourself as a
pioneer of 21st century technology if one of your key raw
materials conjures up images of impoverished children wheeling
barrows laden with ore or being lowered into rickety tunnels.
Such stark representations of small-scale mining, however,
risk over-simplifying the "informal" sector, which is a major
employer and plays a crucial economic and development role for
millions of people around the world.
A GLOBAL INFORMAL ECONOMY
The World Bank estimates that artisanal mining, by small
cooperative or family groups, employs some 40 million people
globally. ("Artisanal and small-scale mining", Nov. 21, 2013).
It's inevitably a rough guess, but the World Bank's
assessment implies that some 100 million people, workers and
their families depend on the sector for their livelihood.
The comparable world figure for the official industrial
mining sector is seven million people.
And artisanal mining probably represents around 15-20
percent of all global minerals and metals production, first and
foremost gold, diamonds and other precious stones, according to
the International Institute for Environment and Development.
It thrives on a combination of resource wealth and income
poverty, a toxic brew found in many developing countries,
particularly countries like the DRC, which has one of the
starkest divides between mineral riches and local poverty.
There may be around two million artisanal workers operating
in the DRC, the country's Chamber of Mines estimates. ("2015
As in the rest of the world, most of them are digging for
gold, diamonds and semi-precious stones such as tourmaline.
However, around 200,000 are working copper-cobalt mines and
a similar number "3T" (tin, tungsten and tantalum) deposits.
Belgian research group IPIS, with backing from the DRC's
ministry of mines, has conducted invaluable research into the
artisanal mining camps in the east of the country.
Its researchers visited 1,615 sites between 2013 and 2015,
calculating that 240,000 artisanal workers were employed on
them, around 80 percent of them searching for gold.
The alarming statistic from IPIS is that "at least one armed
actor was present" at 56 percent of all visited sites.
The Congolese army was found to be running mines accounting
for 26 percent of the artisanal workforce with "at least one
non-state armed group" present at 25 percent of mine sites.
The Congolese wars at the turn of the century never really
ended and factions are still clashing in the eastern part of the
country, with millions of people fleeing a new flare-up
described by Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council,
Jan Egeland, as "violence by hundreds of armed groups".
These factions are drawn to the artisanal mining sector for
money, whether in the form of "taxation" on miners, forced
labour or just plain pillaging. And the resulting output is
correctly called "conflict minerals".
PROBLEM OR SOLUTION?
Much of the DRC's artisanal production is smuggled out of
the country, depriving the government of much-needed revenue.
But a lot of it has also been seeping into domestic mineral
supply chains and Amnesty International has warned of
"significant risk of cobalt mined by children in the DRC ending
up in the batteries of electric cars". ("Industry giants fail to
tackle child labour allegations in cobalt battery supply
chains," Nov. 15, 2017).
While this is the stuff of PR nightmares for automotive
companies, so too is an inability to lock in future supply.
But could the "problem" of artisanal mining also be the
A template already exists in the ITRI Tin Supply Chain
Initiative (iTSCi), which was born out of the concerns of
companies such as Apple about whether "3T" minerals from
conflict parts of the DRC were entering their supply chains.
It has been running for several years in the tin-rich South
Kivu province and now encompasses more than 50,000 miners.
Not only does it promote better health and safety, it also
facilitates audited mine-to-smelter "clean" supply chains.
Apple has spent the last two years devising a similar
mechanism for its cobalt purchases, tracing its sourcing all the
way back to the DRC mine site.
Its most recent annual "Supplier Responsibility Progress
Report" includes for the first time a list of cobalt suppliers.
Three out of the six refiners, all Chinese players, are
still working on their audit trails, but Apple explains that
"we've consciously chosen to stay engaged with mines and
smelters that are not yet meeting our high standards and will
work with them to develop responsible practices."
"We know there are real challenges with artisanal mining of
cobalt, but walking away from it indefinitely would be harmful
to communities who rely on this mining for their income."
The World Bank agrees, arguing that artisanal mining
supports millions of families in an estimated 80 countries,
diversifies rural economies away from subsistence farming and
can have a significant wealth distribution impact.
The bank has programmes in various countries aimed both at
bringing artisanal mining into the official economy and
educating miners as to why, for example, they really don't need
to use polluting mercury to produce gold.
Integrating the artisanal cobalt miners of the DRC into the
formal supply chain would make both economic and moral sense,
but first requires an end to the lawlessness whose main victims
include the miners themselves.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)
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